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 The TheatreguideLondon Review

Druid Murphy (Conversations On A Homecoming, A Whistle In The Dark, Famine)
Hampstead Theatre  June 2012 and touring

Three play despairing of Ireland and the Irish people – they could only have been written by an Irishman. 

Druid, Ireland's leading touring company, is offering a repertory of three plays by Tom Murphy in a brief London season before a tour of Britain, Ireland and America. I'm not sure many would want to take on a marathon day of all three, but each of the plays has strengths to recommend it. 

Conversations On A Homecoming takes a familiar premise – the expat returns to his home town – to places we don't expect, and while its conclusion may be predictable, the journey there isn't. 

A fellow who left his Galway town for a career comes back, clearly (though this is unspoken) less successful than he hoped and tempted to give up and stay. An evening of drinking with old friends passes through reminiscence, teasing, expressions of long-held bitterness and reconciliation, and he realises at the end that, though there is warmth and continuity at home, it is also dead and he will have to escape a second time. 

The picture of the reunion is totally convincing, down to small touches like the minor character who's always been at the fringe of the group, still trying to get inside and barely tolerated by the others. But Murphy adds another layer that makes the play resonate beyond its local colour. 

The play is set in the 1970s and a central subject of conversation and argument is an unseen character who was the leader of the group in the old days, a lad who bore a physical resemblance to John F. Kennedy and who, for other reasons, failed to carry through and deliver on the promises that inspired others. And so the play becomes in part the 1970s' response to the 1960s, a disappointment and even resentment that young hopes so excited were allowed to dissipate and die. 

A Whistle In The Dark (seen at the Tricycle in 2006) reverses the situation, showing us an expat whose Irish family visits him in England. 

The father taught all his sons a single lesson – to be strong – which translated in their terms to being ruffians, measuring themselves by being victors over other gangs in street brawls. The escaped son rejected these values and wants to keep his youngest brother out of that life, but the culture of violence is too powerful for him to combat or even resist himself. 

As I wrote about the Tricycle production, there is a lot of passion onstage in this play, a lot of energy and a lot of pain. What that version caught that this one doesn't quite see is the degree to which the violent brothers have nothing else to define themselves by, and the extent to which they half- (or more) sense this and thus are maddened even further by feelings of worthlessness and self-disgust, a quality that could lend the play more of a tragic dimension it lacks here. 

Famine, set in 1846, shows the combined forces of bad harvests, commercial exploitation and government inaction destroying a farming community through the simple expedient of letting them all die of starvation. 

Its central character is a farmer so convinced that Something Will Be Done and so concerned that he Do The Right Thing that he does nothing at all, while others around him grasp at whatever options – rebellion, emigration, criminality – they can find. 

In a programme interview Murphy acknowledges a debt to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but where Miller made his man of purity a hero, Murphy allows us to wonder whether his is just being self-destructively stupid. 

Perhaps inevitably, since it is a story of attrition and inability to learn, the play goes on longer than may have been absolutely necessary to make its point, and while it is powerful it is also a bit of a slog. 

With the reservations I've expressed, Garry Hynes' direction of all three plays is admirable, giving each an absolute reality, even when Famine toys with touches of expressionism. 

One special pleasure of seeing all three is the too-rare opportunity of watching a real repertory company, with actors reappearing in very different roles. Particularly impressive throughout are Marty Rea as the prodigal son in Conversations and the peaceful brother in Whistle; Aaron Monaghan as the wannabe in Conversations, the most thuggish of the brothers in Whistle and a cynical cripple in Famine; Garrett Lombard as the most argumentative drinker in Conversations, the densest brother in Whistle and the most rebellious villager in Famine; and Brian Doherty as the tragic holdout in Famine.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Druid Murphy - Hampstead Theatre 2012  

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