The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham; Tuesday 26th February, 2019
Connemara on Ireland’s west coast: intrigue hangs in the air, like a sinister mist which refuses to clear. This is a place where aspersions are being cast, insinuations are being insinuated – the rumour mill tediously grinds away in low gear leaving a tense, thick atmosphere as cold as the weather that the locals keep complaining about.
Connemara’s grave-digger is Mick Dowd, he and his apprentice Mairtin dutifully clear out the old burials to make room for newer occupants. Mairtin is fearful, he swears that some of the skulls are grinning at him; Mick is far more pragmatic, he just gets on with the job at hand, whilst also taking every opportunity to comically exploit his young accomplice’s naivety.
Set in a tiny community where deep secrets refuse to remain buried, A Skull In Connemara is a deliciously dark amalgam of vulgar humour fused with the twisted plot of a disturbing thriller. As a theatrical offering it could have gone down either the comedy or the thriller route and worked perfectly well – what actually emerges is a hybrid that feels a lot greater than the sum of its two parts.
The plot literally has the intrigue and uncertainty of a murder mystery – but in this case there is doubt as to whether or not a murder has actually taken place at all. This mood of doubt persists throughout the performance and despite the genuinely amusing jokes being made, it never goes away, always threatening to erupt into something very spectacularly unpleasant at any moment.
John O’Dowd’s performance in the lead role of Mick is wonderfully sedate, to the point where his placid reticence begins to come across as deeply sinister. In contrast Liam Heslin’s portrayal of Mairtin is the exact opposite – an excitable and annoyingly eager young man who exudes the pathetic innocence of a horror-movie character who has no hope of surviving the dark menace that he finds himself immersed in.
The staging is excellent, with a set that transforms effortlessly from the relative safety of a cottage within which copious libations of whiskey are consumed to the exposed menace of a torch-lit graveyard late at night. The actual grave-digging scenes are wonderfully atmospheric, so much so that at some points it feels as if it’s possible to smell the fresh soil being shovelled around on stage.
A Skull In Connemara is a beautifully presented fusion of two seemingly polar-opposite theatrical genres; a play built upon the development and exploration of just four characters, each of whom inserts a very different angle on the same underlying mystery – a mystery which falls so tantalisingly and deliciously short of being ultimately resolved.
Photography: Joel Chester Fildes
|Visual pleasure||A stunningly well crafted set that seemed to magically transform from an indoor house scene to a spooky graveyard setting at the flick of a light switch. Trapdoors in the stage made for perfect graves, the soil being shovelled around made it all look so realistic.||5|
|Auditory pleasure||The mood was set with an almost constant murmur from background sound effects: clocks ticking for the indoor scenes, the sound of seagulls and hooting owls for the action taking place outdoors. Incidental music for the scene changes was beautiful in the shape of well-crafted bursts of folky Irish strings and pipes.||4|
|Architecture & Theme||A brilliantly written play with an intriguing story line that holds the audience’s attention till the very end. Despite failing to resolve the many mysteries that are raised during the performance it doesn’t feel annoying for not having finished the story, if anything it sets the mind racing and makes for a more thrilling finish which leaves the audience demanding more.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Four excellent acting performances with John O’Dowd in the lead role holding everything together with a calm, collected and almost sinister low-paced delivery that contrasted nicely with the mania of Liam Heslin’s depiction of the young apprentice Mairtin.||4|
|Overall impact||Genuinely funny mickey-taking comedy delivered against an extremely dark and macabre plot. A brilliant piece of theatre that sticks an intriguing story into the mind of the audience only to abruptly come to an end without resolving anything.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|