"Big trouble in Western Ireland"
by Ed Barrett for remotegoat on 28/02/19

The second part of Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy (though it works perfectly well as a standalone piece), A Skull in Connemara is a very dark comedy set in a small Irish town where everyone knows much of everyone else’s business, with any missing details readily embroidered by wagging tongues. This ambiguity leaves the audience with the delicious challenge of sifting fact from fiction - the central mystery here being whether Mick Dowd’s wife Oona died in a drink-driving incident with Mick at the wheel, or whether she met a more sinister end.

Mick is the local gravedigger, charged each year with making room for the newly-deceased by disinterring remains of some of the long-departed. This year he’s been appointed an assistant, Mairtin, who seems to be there more out of morbid curiosity than for the meagre wage. Given that this year Mick will be digging up his wife Oona’s remains, there’s also a police presence in the shape of Mairtin’s brother Tom, determined to uncover Mick’s guilt, whatever it takes.

As brothers Mairtin and Tom, both Liam Heslin and Griffin Stevens bring their A-games, with the former’s somewhat twisted persona and the latter’s ego and ambition given full expression without ever tipping over into caricature.

Jenny Lee also has some wonderful moments as the brothers’ grandmother Maryjohnny, whose taste for Mick’s poitìn is not always quite enough to overcome her doubts about his past.

At the centre of the action, John O’Dowd gives a fine, if perhaps slightly overly subtle, performance. I can’t help wondering if it’s a directorial decision to have Mick quite so underplayed. Whilst this works well in some respects – allowing wonderful moments when we share the realisations that dawn on Mick whilst other characters remaining non-the-wiser, for example; or making it clear to us that Mick is a man with a lot on his mind – for me, this slightly falls between two stools: an entirely ‘empty’ performance would give our imaginations even more room to read between the lines, whilst a ‘fuller’ embodiment of the character would give us more variety.

If this is a flaw, though, it’s a minor one; and, as the piece develops (as I’m sure it will), having Mick as the eye of the storm might turn out to work rather well.

Overall, It is a sign of Director Chris Lawson’s great good sense that he allows the quality of the writing to shine through, without getting in the way.

The production team support the onstage action with a similar lightness of touch.

I see that the Oldham Coliseum hosted the first of this trilogy of plays (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) in 2009. If this production is anything to go by, it’ll be well worth keeping an eye out for the third, The Lonesome West.

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