Written in 2001 and set during the 1990s peace process, Martin McDonagh’s play is saturated in blood. It’s as red as, well, a Rothko canvas – you can see why director Michael Grandage thought to pair it with his recent revival of John Logan’s play.
Poldark’s Aidan Turner plays Padraic, an Irish National Liberation Army man, deemed “too mad” for the IRA, who pulls off the toenails of Belfast drug dealers with the same offhand ease other people discuss a downturn in the weather.
When he hears word that his precious cat Wee Thomas is ill, he heads home to tend to him. But Wee Thomas isn’t ill, he’s dead. He is an ex-cat. His head’s been caved in. His brains have exited his little kitty skull, bashed out by Padraic’s comrades.
Padraic’s dad (Denis Conway) and his friend, the hapless Davey (Chris Walley), knowing what this may trigger, try to disguise a replacement cat with shoe polish. They aren’t successful.
The might of McDonagh’s writing is how it renders absurd the romance surrounding men who resort to violence in the name of freedom, who put bullets in men’s heads for a better Ireland. It takes things to ridiculous extremes. Slaughter and sentimentality walk hand in hand.
The performances are in keeping with the tone of the text. A white-vested Turner is impressive as Padraic, combining charisma with volatility and, underneath that, an endearing goofiness. Walley, only just out of RADA, makes a notable debut as Davey, the gormless, ginger-mulleted spawn of Father Dougal and Mickey from The League of Gentlemen. His comic timing is impeccable.
Charlie Murphy does wonders with the character of Mairead, the teenage would-be freedom fighter who prides herself on being able to put out a cow’s eyes with her rifle, the sole woman in this world of violent men.
McDonagh’s taut comedy rapidly escalates into mayhem and bloodshed. So much bloodshed. There are innards. There are severed limbs. There are multiple cat corpses.
By the end, Christopher Oram’s pleasingly detailed set, atmospherically lit by Neil Austin, is liberally spattered with gore (as is Walley’s face). But funny as the production is (and it is laugh-out-loud funny in places), it is also a pretty blunt instrument.
Grandage is not going for subtlety here. The jokes are rammed home, the cartoonish comedy delivered with the force of a nail-gun. As with his 2013 production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, this feels like McDonagh-as-star-vehicle, rather than disrupter and satirist. The play is robbed of some of its satiric power – it’s red in tooth but not in claw.