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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Juno and the Paycock
Lyttelton Theatre    Winter 2011-2012

Howard Davies' production of  Sean O'Casey's drama, imported from the Abbey Theatre, is a disappointment. 

It's not terrible – the play is too good for that. But as you sit through it, and as you think about it afterwards, your strongest impression will be of a director not doing justice to his playwright, or to his actors.

Set in a Dublin tenement in 1922, the play introduces us to the Boyle family. Mother Juno and daughter Mary do all the work while father Jack idles about with his drinking buddy, and son Johnny, twice-wounded IRA man, mopes about feeling sorry for himself. 

Hope appears in the promise of an inheritance, but the play clearly points toward disappointment, and moves inexorably toward unhappiness and tragedy.

It is that sense of foreboding and movement toward inevitability that director Davies somehow misses, and without it the play is not only shapeless and rhythmless, but has no statement to make about life. 

Some good things happen and some bad things happen and then the play stops. 

That's not the play O'Casey wrote. There are punctuation marks along the way, signals of foreboding or reminders of a world outside and how it impinges on the family. Davies doesn't eliminate them, but he lets them go by unnoticed. 

Even the most dramatic event of the first act, the appearance of a neighbour on her way to her son's funeral, is just another incidental episode among many – and when it is evoked at play's end as a symbol of realities the family culpably ignored, it just doesn't have the resonance it should. 

Bob Crowley's set doesn't help, letting what should be a cramped tenement room fill the enormous Lyttelton stage. Aside from failing to evoke any sense of time and place, it leaves the actors stranded on this vast empty space, none more so than Sinead Cusack as Juno, left to deliver her final aria directly to the audience in what might as well be noplace rather than a very specific place.

Fortunately the director and designer have a strong cast, who do what they can to create the characters and context on their own. 

Sinead Cusack resists the temptation to make Juno a saint, filling her with small characterising touches that flesh out the woman. In that last scene I just mentioned, Cusack creates more reality in the way she silently takes her daughter's hand after her big speech than in the badly-staged speech itself. 

Ciaran Hands captures all the comic bluff and emptiness of 'Captain' Jack, but also lets us glimpse the darker side of his irresponsibility, and Risteard Cooper as his buddy Joxer recognises the barely-disguised resentment all parasites feel toward those they sponge off. 

Everyone else has been directed to remember they are supporting cast, giving their characters no more depth than is absolutely necessary, and thus contributing little to the play's texture or reality.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Juno and the Paycock - National Theatre 2011

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