Martin McDonagh has enjoyed cinematic success of late, most notably with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but the dark humour of his early plays is particularly suited to the intimacy of a theatre. There’s a sense of overhearing illicit conversation, of secrets being revealed.
A Skull in Connemara, which premiered in Galway in 1997, is the second in McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy set in the west of Ireland. Here, the local graveyard is overflowing and space must be made for new bodies by disinterring existing corpses. In the process, Mick Dowd (a perfectly cast John O’Dowd) discovers his wife’s body has gone missing seven years after her mysterious death. It’s difficult to know where culpability lies in this world populated by “eejits and blackguards.”
Liam Heslin is wonderfully idiotic as young Mairtin, who’s getting progressively drunker on Mick’s poteen while Maryjohnny (Jenny Lee) curls her lip and admonishes him for swearing and cursing.
The sparky interplay between the cast and the rhythmic delivery of the lines squeeze out every drop of black humour from McDonagh’s script. Meanwhile, Katie Scott’s set design cleverly transforms Mick’s spartan, sombre kitchen into an atmospheric cemetery complete with muddy, half-dug graves.
Chris Lawson, recently appointed acting artistic director of Oldham Coliseum, faithfully captures the spirit of the play with hilarious effect. Characters talk to skulls held aloft, like Hamlet with Yorick, and Mairtin simply cannot call a spade a spade – Lawson recognises that McDonagh is mocking the dramatic form while simultaneously paying homage to it.