With the Liverpool Irish Festival to come later this month, it’s an apt time of year for the Liverpool Playhouse to be reviving Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, in a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic directed by Gemma Bodinetz. Pre-show the theatre gets us in the mood with some Irish-themed décor (including a sign in Gaelic on the door of the Gents).
The play, first performed in Dublin in 1924, depicts the struggles of a poverty stricken family during the civil conflict that followed Irish independence. The storyline has obvious resonances today, in a Britain where unemployment and economic hardship are still very much with us, and where arguments over Scotland’s sovereignty have recently dominated the headlines.
The family are the Boyles: Juno, the long-suffering mother; Jack, her boastful, ne’er do well ‘peacock’ of a husband; daughter Mary, hoping to escape by marrying a schoolteacher; and son Johnny, who – having lost an arm fighting for independence – seems haunted and fearful following the recent death of a former comrade. When a relative dies the family receives news of a sizeable inheritance, and it seems their fortunes may be about to change. But there are further shocks to come.
Niamh Cusack’s Juno elicits tremendous sympathy from the audience as the tireless centre of the family, somehow holding everything together against all the odds but slowly buckling as the blows continue to rain down. Adversity never seems far away, but there’s still plenty of comedy, especially in the first half of the play. Much of this emanates from Des McAleer’s Jack, who regales the other characters with tall stories about his seafaring experiences (limited in reality to a journey on the Liverpool ferry). The strength of McAleer’s performance however is the skill with which he also conveys the chilling extent of Jack’s selfishness and lack of humanity.
Maureen O’Connell and Donal Gallery are also excellent as Mary and Johnny, and the rest of the cast present us with a range of interesting secondary characters, including Jack’s clownish fellow wastrel Joxer (Louis Dempsey) and a fiery, excitable neighbour (Aoife McMahon). The decision to portray Mary’s boyfriend (Robin Morrisey) as an upper class twit raises some laughs but makes her love for him rather implausible.
The striking set is dominated by a huge, disorganised pile of old furniture, representing the crowded Dublin tenement in which the Boyles live, and also perhaps symbolising the disorder and wreckage of the characters’ lives, and of 1920s Ireland. The political dimension of Juno and the Paycock is more prominent in the play’s darker second half, where O’Casey’s condemnation of sectarian violence is made powerfully clear, as is his remarkably outspoken (for the time) criticism of the established church.
This is a fine production of a 20th century classic, and – especially given the strength of Liverpool’s connection with Ireland – should have a deservedly successful run at the Playhouse.
Juno and the Paycock continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 18 October. For more information, click HERE.
Photos: ©Stephen Vaughan