A sell-out opening night for A Skull in Connemara at the Lyceum Theatre in Oldham, (the second play in The Leenane Trilogy). The Lyceum proved to be the perfect setting for Martin McDonagh’s work, which centres on the gravedigger Mick Dowd, as the audience had to descend to this atmospheric, below-ground, jewel of a theatre. Immediately the audience were presented with Peter Fitton’s inspired split stage set design: on the one side Mick Dowd’s humble home and the other, the graveyard outside the church. The front row of the audience were mere feet away from the stage and could clearly see the superb attention to detail achieved by the talented set construction team. The lighting design by Bob Critchley was effective in differentiating the two different settings, keeping the audience clearly focused on the action.
The opening scene with Mick Dowd (Colin Smith) and Maryjohnny Rafferty (Sue Garlick) was a masterclass in comic timing, making the audience laugh out loud at the ridiculous, repetitive nature of the conversation (reminiscent of the humour in Father Ted). The talents of Smith and Garlick let the audience relax knowing they were in for a few laughs in this dark story.
Colin Smith was perfectly cast as the dour Mick Dowd. Smith’s mannerisms and facial expressions kept the audience guessing if Dowd had the capacity to deliberately kill his wife. The complex character of Dowd was mastered perfectly by Smith, the suspense was heightened throughout the story as the audience tried to work out if Dowd was just a doleful yet twinkle-eyed joker, a wronged loving husband or a menacing psychopath.
Nathan Simpson as young Mairtin Hanlon brought further comic relief and energy to the stage as the hapless grave digging assistant to Mick. Simpson played the character convincingly providing some much-needed comedy, particularly in the exhumation scene with Thomas and Mick during which Mairtin is repeatedly pushed into the grave and teased about “the tinkers”.
All Irish accents were convincing and maintained throughout. Any lines missed were confidently dealt with by this experienced cast, thus not detracting from the storytelling.
Damien Kavanagh was superb as the ambitious, yet unobservant police officer Thomas Hanlon. Kavanagh gave a confident performance, with clear delivery of lines and fantastic wide-eyed expressions of disbelief and despair at Mairtin and Mick’s comments and behaviour.
Sue Garlick gave an assured performance as the bingo-loving, gossipy Maryjohnny Rafferty. Garlick’s accent was convincing as were the conversations between Maryjohnny and Mick, these were conducted at a good pace with natural pauses creating the impression that these two characters had been having conversations like this for years.
The sound (by Andy Hargreaves and Scott Morris) added to the story, sometimes for comedic effect, for example the clever choice of song played at the end of the first half. At other moments the sound provided contrast, specifically between the sweet sounds of the harp and the morbid actions of Dowd irreverently sweeping the tiny pieces of the crushed skulls. This created a sinister atmosphere, and the audience were simultaneously repulsed and intrigued.
Ian Orry (with support from Maureen Copp and Pat Lowe) had clearly done an excellent job with the props. The skulls were realistic and an appropriate density, clearly hours of work had been spent creating these, only for Mick and Mairtin to crush them every performance. The skull crushing scene was effective in that this gruesome violence gave the audience a further insight into the dark side of the characters of Mick and the easily led Mairtin. On a practical note, I was a little concerned that the front row made need some safety goggles too – but this scene played out successfully!
Overall, under the direction of Peter Fitton, these four talented actors told McDonagh’s unusual, dark story well. It is easy to see how this play could be found offensive by some, with outdated terms used, disrespect of the dead and with practically every bodily fluid mentioned, however, the humour and caricatures leave the audience pondering key themes such as acceptable behaviour and judging others.
Shocking and suspenseful with laughs by the shovelful! This play delights, deliberately repulses and entertains.
All the best for the remainder of the sell-out run.
Reviewer: Emma Wild
Reviewed: 25th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: