The Playhouse’s instinct for on-the-nose productions that relay as powerful a message to modern audiences as they did when they were first written continues with Juno and the Paycock. Sean O’Casey’s 1924 tale of poverty and politics in a Dublin tenement draws parallels with today’s climate of austerity and war; a period piece that serves as a (literally) stark reminder that none of us are every really far away from losing everything.
Juno (Niamh Cusack) is a matriarch holding together a rather disfunctional family. She goes out to work while her husband Captain Jack (Des McAleer) does everything possible to avoid a day’s honest employment, preferring to sneak to the pub with his layabout mucker Joxer (Louis Dempsey), creating comic moments that are as much Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they are Father Ted. Son Johnny (Donal Gallery) lost an arm in the Easter uprising and may still be a wanted man; daughter Mary (Maureen O’Connell) is on strike, and more concerned about accessorising her outfits than making something of herself.
Life isn’t easy, but it is what it is, until an uptight English lawyer arrives announcing a life-changing inheritance. A happy ending, however, would be too much to hope for.
It’s another well-measured and considered production from director Gemma Bodinetz, who has proved in the past to be more than a safe pair of hands when asking an audience to face a 90-minute first act for starters – and Juno will certainly be less familiar to audiences than A Streetcar Named Desire or Twelfth Night. However, this production never feels too long, although the thick Dublin accents may require a bit of extra concentration to the untrained ear. Conor Murphy’s set design, of old wooden furniture stacked high like a giant bonfire, leads to a single door leading into the Boyle’s front room. The ensembles provide an occasional ceilidh-band soundtrack.
A weighty drama with a sterling performance from Niamh Cusack quite literally at its heart, this is absorbing theatre of the highest quality.
Juno and the Paycock is a co-production with Bristol Old Vic and runs at the Playhouse until October 18.