Juno and the Paycock, Des McAleer (Captain Boyle) and Niamh Cusack (Juno). Photo: Stephen Vaughan.
‘The world’s in the grip of change for Juno and her peacock of a husband – a daughter flirting with marriage and politics, a civil war outside the door, a son wounded and hiding from the conflict. Could the reading of a will bring stability and status to the Boyle household?
Hilarity and tragedy rub shoulders in Sean O’Casey’s classic Irish drama set in Dublin 1922, featuring his trademark mix of comic double acts, political upheavals, domestic longings, and characters who are never far away from an opulent word or song.‘
Juno and the Paycock – Maureen OConnell (Mary Boyle) and Des McAleer (Captain Jack Boyle). Photo: Stephen Vaughan.
Despite being only a very few generations away from Irish Catholic immigrants, I remain woefully ignorant about that part of my family’s history, so it was with some trepidation that I attended last night’s press performance of Sean O’Casey’s highly regarded play Juno and the Paycock at the Bristol Old Vic theatre – a production about which, I will cheerfully admit, I knew absolutely nothing. In fact, I’ll be honest, because of the title I had kind of always assumed that it was an Elizabethan romantic comedy (yup, putting my English Literature A Level to good use there but in my defence, Coggeshall in Essex, where I grew up has a lovely Tudor National Trust property called Paycockes, which set the erroneous mental connection up in my head!) along the lines, perhaps, of one of Shakespeare’s more fanciful pieces – imagine my surprise therefore when I discovered that it is in fact set in an impoverished Dublin tenement building during the 1920s. Oops.
Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that I was disabused of my notion of Elizabethan romantic comedy shortly after arranging to attend the press night, otherwise I think I would have been very alarmed indeed by how the evening progressed. As it stands, we were greeted upon arrival at the Old Vic by a stage elaborately and inventively designed to evoke the ramshackle chaos and grimy seediness of a Dublin slum. I really love the way that plays at the Old Vic start with an open stage, which is already inhabited by the cast. It really draws the audience into the action and nicely sets us up for the performance that is to follow as we’re half in their world already. Plus it gives us something to look at while waiting for the performance to begin.
Juno and the Paycock – Louis Dempsey (Joxer), Des McAleer (Captain Boyle) and Aoife McMahon (Mrs Madigan). Photo: Stephen Vaughan.
Although the story of Juno and the Paycock is on the gloomy side, dealing as it does with such weighty issues as the IRA, unplanned pregnancy and social inequality, any concerns that I may have had about the play being an unrelieved gloom fest were swiftly dismissed once the story actually began to unfold, with the assistance of a vibrant and energetic cast headed by the superb and heart rending Niamh Cusack as the long suffering, devout quintessential Irish Mammy Juno Boyle (‘Aw, g’wan now, will ye not have a cup o tea? G’wan. G’wan. G’wan.’ etc) and Des McAleer as her malingering whiskey philosophising fantasist of a husband and Sean O’Casey’s slyly humorous script, which is full of bleak comedy as well as poignant tragedy.
The amazing set was put to full use during the performance, lending an inventive backdrop to the Boyle family’s impoverishment, brief rise to relative prosperity then inevitable decline into indigence again, while all the while, Johnny, the son of the family who is played with great aplomb and pathos by Donal Gallery, maimed during the War of Independence, struggles with his own personal demons and sense of guilt surrounding the death of his friend and IRA comrade, Tancred, whose funeral with its Catholic rites and chanting creates a solemn counterpoint to the Boyle family’s drunken partying with their friends, the repetitious drunk, Joxer and somewhat stage stealing lady of uncertain repute and tarnished glamour Mrs Madigan, after the purchase of a brand new gramophone bought on tick.
Juno and the Paycock – Niamh Cusack (Juno). Photo: Stephen Vaughan.
Meanwhile, his more frivolous sister, Mary, beautifully played by Maureen O’Connell, dumps her boring with undertones of violence boyfriend in favour of the well heeled lawyer responsible for the family’s new and ultimately short lived prosperity, only for it to all go horribly awry when she becomes pregnant by the latter and the former, despite all his banging on about loving her forever, turns his back on her for good, leaving her to face her unenviable fate alone.
In summary: although I was expecting something altogether more dreary (once I’d got past my initial confusion about period and setting!), I really enjoyed Juno and the Paycock and although the subject matter was dark, I felt swept away by this dynamic production, which combined a heady mixture of Irish music, pathos and darkly grim humour to create something truly remarkable.
Juno and the Paycock is a Bristol Old Vic co-production with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and is on at the Old Vic until the 27th of September, with tickets ranging from £5 to £26. Definitely go and see it if you can.
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