What a choice for a theatrical housewarming. The new underground offshoot of Southwark Playhouse will open with Enda Walsh’s 2006 play, set just a stone’s throw away in a south London tower block. Offering a somber vision of Elephant and Castle’s Grau und Muck, it hardly celebrates the art of theater itself, as Walsh’s characters hopelessly stage a play within a play, caught in a cycle of tyranny and fantasy.
Director Nicky Allpress’s last production, Crackers at the Polka, was a hilarious family farce starring a cheeky rodent. But in Walsh’s disturbing comedy, we’re told that even the rats have left the flat where Dinny arrives from Ireland and settles in with his two boys. Anisha Fields’ beautifully dirty design features wallpaper with wistful foliage reminiscent of the green grass of home. There are pots, pans and a framed Pope in the kitchen, a jumble of locks including a decorative crucifix locking the front door, and a ghostly made-up bust evoking the sons’ absent mother. Under her sinister gaze, Dinny orchestrates a daily ritual that forces Blake and Sean to reenact bizarre family scenes.
On one level, it’s a backstage lark about a play going awry: Dan Skinner’s Dinny is a prima donna director, Emmet Byrne’s Sean mixes up props and recites straight, while Killian Coyle’s Blake does bland impersonations. But Walsh’s play is reminiscent of Pinter’s The Homecoming and Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, with its wave of male menace escalating with the unexpected arrival of the bubbly Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks).
These scenarios are full of allegory, pastiche, and conflicting emotions spun through dialogue that confuses and sparkles. Dinny’s “busy pictures” of the past need breathing room amid the bang. Walsh wanted to capture the chaos and stasis of a traffic jam at the Elephant and Castle roundabout. It’s a devilish combination, and Allpress’s well-acted revival is strongest in the fragile moments Sean and Blake hold on to, blinking like moles at the possibilities of a world outside.
While there are dizzying costume changes and Skinner has a comical swagger, the slapstick rarely peaks and doesn’t carry enough underlying horror. When a wooden spoon is swung in self-defense or salami is found instead of fried chicken, it should be both desperate and funny, but it isn’t. The second act feels overly long, but all-press delivers a harrowing climax that perfects the tone of adrenaline-pumping desolation and helps Walsh’s myth-making nightmare to succeed.
• At the Southwark Playhouse Elephant, London, until March 18th.