The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre: ‘The audience is submerged in the madness, and happy to be so.’

Sarah Gibbs reviews The Lieutenant of Inishmore, examining the play’s use of macabre elements and enticing acting. 

A secondary school teacher once told me that it’s impossible to see a bad Mercutio; Shakespeare gave Romeo’s best friend so many great lines, he’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. In Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, every character is a Mercutio. With a supercharged script, and a cast that fully commits to its farcical absurdity, Michael Grandage’s production nearly forestalls criticism. The audience is submerged in the madness, and happy to be so.

When the play opens in 1993 on the Irish island of Inishmore, Donny (Denis Conway) and Davey (Chris Walley) are staring at a dead cat. Teenager Davey has found the feline expired on a back road and returned him to his owner. The problem is, it’s not Donny’s cat. Wee Thomas is the beloved pet of Donny’s son, Mad Padraic (Aidan Turner), so named because he’s too bloodthirsty for the IRA, and spends his days bombing Belfast chip shops and removing drug dealers’ toe nails in the name of Irish freedom. Padraic is in the midst of one such torture session when he receives word of Thomas’s demise, and vows to return on the next boat. The entire island braces for his arrival.

Chris Walley, Aidan Turner and Denis Conway. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Subtlety is the enemy of farce, and Grandage has ensured his cast leans in to the crazy. McDonagh’s characters suffer from a sort of emotional ADHD: they can be distracted from torture by a cheery call from home, from sawing up corpses by the question of the nutritional value of Frosties. Turner brings the same winning mix of goofiness and menace to Padraic as distinguished his lovable vampire in BBC Three’s Being Human. As in the television programme, scenarios in the play shift rapidly between humour and brutality. Padraic appears at the beginning of the second act wearing both a child-like grin, and a blood-soaked undershirt. As his freedom-fighting frenemy, Christy, Will Irvine is an effective straight man and foil to Daryl McCormack and Julian Moore-Cook’s hapless INLA henchmen; dialogue in their scenes is a wonderful evocation of terrorists’ twisted logic. Conway and Walley, however, are the heart of the show. A classic odd couple—the high-strung, lanky youth and the solid pensioner—their (comparative) normality is the necessary counterpoint to the surrounding chaos, and the actors have excellent chemistry. I may be able to die happy now that I’ve seen a teenager in a mullet coat a cat in shoe polish.

Gun shots, exploding cats, dead cats, blindings, exploding heads, dismembered corpses, and torture-via-kitchen-implement. All in a rustic Irish cottage: the extreme violence and regional specificity of McDonagh’s play make immense demands of set and prop teams. Set designer Christopher Oram rises to the occasion: his stone cottage is authentic, not hokey, and populated with just the right faded furniture and bric-a-brac. Celia Strainge’s props are flawless.

If I have a criticism of the play, it is more question than quibble. In an interview for this publication, Irvine notes that the character development process for Lieutenant occurs backwards. Rather than create each person’s history and then bring it to bear on the scenes, the technical requirements of the piece mean that character emerges from staging itself. The complexity of the effects, extremity of the personalities, and absurdity of the situations mean that creative reinterpretation of the work is almost impossible; in this case, there may be only one way to play Mercutio. Thus, while the play’s brilliance is undeniable, it’s ultimate longevity may not be. That, however, is a problem for the future. Present-day London audiences can enjoy the gift of an evening of exceptional mayhem.


The Lieutenant of Inishmore will be at the Noel Coward Theatre until the 8th September, 2018. 

Feature photograph: Johan Persson

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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