Review by Bella Wellstead
Welcome to the western Irish town of Leenane. The money is scarce, every adult in town has known each other since birth, and a local man has just died – shot by his own son in a convenient freak accident. Needless to say, this does nothing to alleviate the local parish priest’s almost-constant crisis of faith. In the wake of their father’s death, Coleman and Valene are confronted by the enduring conflict of having to live on top of one another. Written by Martin McDonagh, directed by Anna Houston, and assistant directed by Phaedra Nicolaidis, The Lonesome West is a black comedic tale of brotherly rivalry gone feral.
Lee Beckhurst is surly and delectably languorous as Coleman. He guzzles his brother’s booze, loafs around the house, and leafs through Take a Break Magazine with the listless precision of an expert. Andre De Vanny’s Valene contrasts his brother in almost every way. A weedy, wasplike, pestiferous control freak, Valene is the sole inheritor of their father’s money and belongings. Eyes bulging and hands clasped, he holds his wealth over Coleman’s head with the acidity of a vengeful younger brother.
Both Coleman and Valene are afflicted by a lingering childishness. Their every bicker and jibe is tainted by it, and it frequently pushes them to physically attack one another. It is the very perseverance of their adolescent amorality that has transformed them into such violent, sniping adults. Both Beckhurst and De Vanny handle the transition from infantile squabbling to armed brutality with strength and elegance. Their expert control over these clashes and dissonances weaves the black comedic fabric within which The Lonesome West is tangled.
Set and costume design by Kate Beere is exceptionally detailed and phenomenally oppressive. The brothers’ tiny home, with its patchy, peeling wallpaper and dry, old floorboards, has a bare tidiness to it. A crucifix hangs menacingly on the back wall, over a mounted shot gun and a shelf of fibreglass saint figurines. The sepia tones of their living room simultaneously age the set and freeze it in time. Just like the adult boys who inhabit the space, their house refuses to mature. Additionally, Beere’s costumes masterfully capture the archetypal opposition between Coleman and Valene. Whilst the former lolls about in loafers and an untucked polo shirt, the latter is prim, pristine, and unfailingly sweater-vested, with an uptight micro-fringe that runs straight across his forehead.
Abe Mitchell’s performance as alcoholic priest Father Welsh is as endearing as it is desolate. Struck by the sin which runs rampant throughout Leenane, he considers himself a failure in the realm of moral and cultural leadership. He spends the play searching for purpose and purchase as, around him, murder, drunkenness, and mental illness abound. Mitchell’s Father Welsh is tremulous, caught in the ever-complex internal battle to remain hopeful and steadfast.
Ruby Hennaway’s Girleen is effervescent and playful. She provides a – naively – hopeful counterbalance to the bleakness that permeates the play. She glimmers with youthful potential as she strides across the stage, teasing the scandalised Father Welsh with her sins and flirtations. However, when Girleen’s dreary circumstances begin to drag her down to earth, Hennaway masterfully transforms. Girleen becomes violent, sullen, and bitter. She is pummelled by the wretched haze that threatens to trap her in Leenane and smother her desires.
Lighting designer Spencer Herd skilfully creates a sense of entrapment and unease. Misty white light hangs over the stage, enclosing the space and confining both actors and audience to the brothers’ gloomy home. The yellow lamplight which initially lures us with its warmth is quickly revealed to be aposematic – a warning that this world is anything but cosy and serene.
Herd’s most acute cautions are delivered during scene transitions, in collaboration with sound designer Zac Saric and director Anna Houston. The actors are given space to linger at the end of each scene, all sound and lighting static as they stare into the audience. Suddenly, a jarring blackout and thunderous rock melodies descend upon the stage. The audience is rattled from their reverie, and the days and hours pass. These transitions are an undeniable triumph for the audio-visual design team.
Through The Lonesome West, Houston and Nicolaidis drag their audience into the unforgiving shadows of Leenane. They leave us to scramble desperately for a skerrick of hope. Savage, gripping, and relentlessly isolating, this Empress Theatre
Company production is a brilliant achievement.
Image Credit: Saz Watson