Review: The Playboy of the Western World at The Old Vic

I confess, the reason I went to see The Playboy of the Western World at The Old Vic can be summed up in two words – Robert Sheehan.

I’m a big fan of Misfits, which I simultaneously think is really underrated but would also hate to see go so mainstream it lost its charm.

Sheehan’s character – Nathan – in the Channel 4 programme is rude, crude, has bad habits and questionable personal hygiene, and has one goal in life – to have sex.

But for all that, there’s something about Nathan you can’t help but like. And a big part of that is Sheehan’s wonderful acting.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Which leads me back to the beginning, and wanting to see him live on stage.

I wasn’t disappointed, Sheehan puts in a solid performance as Christy Mahon (left) – the protagonist of The Playboy of the Western World – particularly considering it’s his professional stage debut.

He is charming, funny, likeable and unlikeable in turns. And his charm onstage is enough to make up for any difficulties he has with the language of J M Synge’s play.

The story centres on Christy, who drifts into a village on the coast of County Mayo on a dark autumn evening. He brings with him a tale of killing his own father, one that gets more exaggerated with every retelling, and which you are never sure is completely true. 

The Playboy of the Western World is, among other things, a play about the power of language, and Synge reflected this theme in his use of words.

An audience not paying attention would have a hard time following the action – spread over three acts covering a night and the following day.

But an audience paying attention won’t mind that ten words are used where two would have sufficed, and that five of those ten might require most people to consult a dictionary.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
In addition to the words used, Synge created a lyrical rhythm with his sentences, a rhythm that Sheehan and co-star Ruth Negga (left), currently on television in Shirley and who plays the female lead Pegeen in this play, don’t always have.

They do succeed at times, particularly during an emotional scene with just the two of them on stage towards the end, but overall there’s a slight stutter to the proceedings.

Whether that’s a lack of confidence, or whether that’s because Synge’s language is so far removed from the way people speak is not known, but, with practice, the two are sure to get better.

A solid supporting cast backs up Sheehan and Negga, and particular praise goes to Niamh Cusack as Widow Quin (right), who steals almost every scene she is in.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Cusack’s experience and talent shine through, as she has little difficulty in getting to grasps with Synge’s wordiness, and the character’s brashness and sometimes crude phrasing hides a kindness and a grief caused by the loss of her children.

When The Playboy of the Western World premiered in Dublin in 1907, it led to protests inside and outside the theatre. Despite some hiccups, The Old Vic has no need to worry about a similar reaction – the audience may have been noisy at the end of the show, but it was only because the applause was so loud.
The Playboy of the Western World is on at The Old Vic until November 26. For tickets visit the website here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s