What could be more appropriate to mark the opening of the Southwark Playhouse Elephant than Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. The state-of-the-art theatre’s minimalist industrial design is symbolic of the ongoing regeneration of this area and stands in stark contrast to the dreary council flat on the Walworth estate that provides the play’s setting. It illustrates how the area around the Elephant and Castle has changed, even though the vitality important housing blocks are still there.
A fast-paced and enormously entertaining production
The play within a play sits on a continuum from comedy to tragedy via absurdism and black comedy with the required nod to farce. As such, it has moments when the names of other writers or plays in the these genres come to mind. Whatever it might be reminiscent of it, this is, of course, uniquely Walsh. His concern with routines and ‘getting through the day’ are evident from the outset although he’s also said, ‘I don't like seeing everyday life on stage: it's boring. I like my plays to exist in an abstract, expressionistic world: the audience has to learn its rules and then connect with these characters who are, on the surface dreadful monsters', This combines with his fascination for characters ‘on the edge of madness, or have entered it.’ All of this and a good measure of Irish humour is to be found in The Walworth Farce along with some vigorous performances.
Dinny (Dan Skinner) left Cork and with his two sons Sean (Emmet Byrne) and Blake (Killian Coyle) and set up home in this grim apartment with multiple locks on the door, lest anyone with a score to settle should come knocking. It’s become his refuge and their prison. Here on a daily basis they perform a play that recounts the people and the past they have left behind. Only Sean ever leaves, in order to purchase the same items each day from the local Tesco’s. One day he messes up the routine when he leaves the supermarket with wrong bag, incurring Dinny’s wrath. Worse comes when Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks) on the checkout, whom Sean has engaged in conversation, turns up with his bag.
Skinner is every bit the entertainer as he acts out the play and directs his boys. They all assume multiple roles, both male and female, with wigs flying in all directions as they switch from one character to another. He also hints at the darker side of Dinny, the father who controls not just of the play but the lives of his sons and who will tolerate no criticism. Coyle, with his over-the-top characterisations and womanly costumes, shows the extent to which Blake is trapped in this setting, subservient and submissive to the whims of his father and with a life that consists only of giving a whole-hearted performance to please him and rise to his expectations. Byrne, in contrast, portrays the young man who has a daily glimpse of the outside world and whose mind is elsewhere. He goes through the motions of the play in a dead-pan manner, conforms and provides humour as a dullard, but ultimately his mind is elsewhere and he is merely biding his time. The surprise appearance of Hayley at the start of act two breathes a whole new dimension into the plot. She has no idea what she has walked into and that she is about to disrupt the day’s performance. Diedericks enters as though this were a normal family home. Her bubbly naivety as she chats about the mix-up over the shopping is hilarious, as Dinny looks on aghast at this unthinkable intrusion into his home and his play. Undeterred, its not long before he has a made her too a prisoner and member of the cast.
Director Nicky Allpress has created a fast-paced and enormously entertaining production that flows with energy around the three-roomed shabby set designed convincingly by Anisha Fields. Amongst all the nonsense, however, it is perhaps easy to miss the simmering dark undertones that will that bring The Walworth Farce to its devastatingly tragic ending and seems to come out of the blue.
This is an exciting opportunity to see Walsh's work on stage and celebrate the arrival of a new London theatre.