It’s rare that I’ve seen a production of Sean O’Casey’s work that’s been brave enough to rein things in. There’s always been the feeling of dialogue ticks too laboured, drama unfolding with a certain lack of perspective, its message a little too bombastic.

And yet, Juno and the Paycock has survived almost a century and – on this outing at least – there is life in it yet: life in all its terrifying, unpredictable, dark and deceitful machinations.

The piece centres on the tribulations of a family from Clontarf in Dublin, the Boyles, during the dog days of the Civil War.

87fdb1bc-0f01-4d97-b146-8b4fb7f39d5fWorkshy father, (played with elan by Des McAleer) is the slippery heart of a family tacked and stitched together by the mother, Juno (sublimely realised by Niamh Cusack – with more than a touch of Streep about her indomitable presence). Daughter Mary is on strike, son Johnny, lost his arm in the O’Connell Street battle during Ireland’s War of Independence. Make no mistake, times is tight.

The family fret and feel their way through battles both micro and macro – interior and otherworldly – until the arrival of an oily English solicitor, complete with plus fours and starched collar. He’s come to tell them they’re in the money. A distant relative has left them half his estate.

Behind the cast, a moraine of furniture looms over the proceedings – like some ominous spoil heap, just waiting to tumble forward and bury the Boyles beneath wing backed chairs, chaise lounges and gilt framed Mothers of God.

And slowly, but oh so surely, Juno and the Paycock’s fatal forward propusion leaves us in no doubt – the gravity of the Boyle’s situation is inescapable. And every family member is, in their own way, the master of their own downfall.

But what’s most shocking – and what’s realised beautifully by Gemma Bodinetz’ deft staging – is the idea of a family with nothing faced with the growing possibility of ending up with even less.

That Ireland, 1922, was no bed of roses – especially for the tenemented poor – really doesn’t need to be laboured, and it’s testament to O’Casey’s developing skill as a social chronicler (and champion of Ireland’s urban poor) that Juno and the Paycock treads lightly with the weightiest of subject matter: religion, greed, social exclusion and divided loyalties.

O’Caseys drama, at its best, creates theatre that is both epic and intensely personal. This shocking and excoriating production leaves you in no doubt, in the turn of a shilling, we could all so easily become fools of fortune.

Until October 18 (a co-production with Bristol Old Vic)
Liverpool Playhouse

Pics: Stephen Vaughan

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