Juno And The Paycock, Bristol Old Vic
This production, put on jointly by the Old Vic and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, of Seán O'Casey's seminal 1924 play 'Juno and the Paycock', feels very timely. Set in the tenements of Dublin during the Irish Civil War period of the early 1920s, the story of a family moving from hardship to destitution and disintegration plays out against a backdrop of unemployment, religion, working class impoverishment and a country struggling to assert its independence of British control.
At the start of the play, the Boyle family are living at subsistence level in their bare rooms. The head of the family, 'Captain' Jack, a malingerer and the 'Paycock' of the title, spends much of his time drinking and telling tall tales about his sea-faring days, while his long-suffering wife, Juno, works hard to hold the family together. Hope of betterment comes in the from of a bequest in a cousin's will and in anticipation of wealth, the couple splash out on new furniture, while their daughter is poised to marry the solicitor who brings the good news. Only their son, who had been physically and psychologically maimed in the Easter Rising and is now in hiding, remains impervious to the atmosphere of optimism that pervades the family.
Of course, what goes up must come down and as the inheritance proves illusory, daughter Mary falls from grace and is violently rejected by her father, and civil war engulfs the family, all that is left is the cold comfort of religious dogma and Juno, disabused of her illusions regarding her husband's nature, bereft at the killing of her son, but still fighting for her daughter's well-being.
Despite its comic moments, this is pure tragedy, an eloquent depiction of the fragility of hope and how easily you can begin with nothing and end up with even less. Niamh Cusak in the role of Juno is riveting, seemingly inhabiting the role rather than acting it, and whilst I felt that Des McAleer as the Paycock lacked the necessary veneer of charisma, the supporting cast members - in particular, Maureen O'Connell as the ill-fated daughter Mary and Donal Gallery as her brother Johnny - were excellent. Very highly recommended.