Review by Abbie Gallagher
The Castle Hill Players have been performing for 66 years and counting. This time, they’ve chosen to stage Martin McDonagh’s 1997 The Cripple of Inishmaan from his Islands Trilogy.
Set on a small island off the Irish west coast in 1934, Cripple of Inishmaan follows the journey of Billy Clavin (Robert Snars), a physically disabled young man longing to leave his home and the jeers of his community behind. His hope seemingly arrives when a Hollywood studio comes to film a movie on a neighbouring island, seeking actors. Billy immediately commissions the help of sailor BabbyBobby (Jason Spindlow) to transport him there, while attempting to hide some grim health news from his adoptive aunts.
There is a reason McDonagh’s work is so beloved and increasingly widely known, given the success of films such as In Bruges and 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. McDonagh’s writing has long been a staple in acting classes, showcases and the HSC syllabus. I myself studied another play in the Island trilogy for my HSC, the darkly comedic Lieutenant of Inishmore. McDonagh’s unique blend of biting dialogue mixed with mean-spirited humour and farce makes him almost unrivalled in the modern age of black comedy.
Quite honestly, I would have to say that Cripple of Inishmaan is the weakest of the island trilogy. Its humour has not aged well in the present day, and it’s a shame.
The Castle Hill Players production of this work is not ‘bad’ by any means. Quite the opposite. The frankly mind blowing set designed by Maureen Cartledge wouldn’t be out of place on a professional stage. The acting is undeniably impressive, particularly 14 year old Toby Rowe as the dimwitted Bartley. Both he and Dimitri Armatas as insufferable town gossip Johnny Pateen Mike completely stole the show in every appearance. The accent work, for the most part, is very convincing and director David Went certainly knows how to move people around the stage.
However, there’s only so much one can do with outdated, ableist jokes. Even allowing for the time period and genre, I found myself cringing and face-palming for all the wrong reasons during the lengthy dialogue-driven scenes. That’s not to say I never laughed at all. I most certainly did. The jokes that hold up, really do hold up and there’s shining moments of McDonagh’s true talents.
That being said, the main issue I had with 95% of these characters was their complete lack of humanity and complexity in the way they interacted with our protagonist and each other. Many of them had little-to-no redeeming features outside of being humorous.
Billy is only ever referred to as “Cripple Billy” throughout the entire first act alone, even by his adoptive aunts. It's frankly exhausting. In the first four scenes, Billy is relentlessly reminded of his condition, and taunted by his peers about his parents supposedly drowning themselves for having produced him, immediately followed by a highly uncomfortable exchange about predatory priests not wanting to target him due to his disability. Historical setting or not, we’ve moved beyond that, and with the limited resources of community theatre, it’s difficult to recontextualise and ‘make it work’ for a modern audience. Five minutes in the company of these awful people from the relative safety of the audience, and I found myself plotting my own escape from this fictional town.
If you can somehow look past the dated and off-colour ‘humour’, there’s a lot to admire here, and a lot of effort to applaud. I would encourage the Castle Hill Players to continue the work they clearly have a lot of passion for, and maybe look forward, bringing in fresh texts, more diversity, and let their abilities flourish to their full capacity.