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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

The Lieutenant of Inishmore review: Aidan Turner thrills in black comedy

The Poldark actor plays a terrorist considered to be too violent by the IRA

A scene from 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' which starts Aidan Turner. Photo by Johan Persson
A scene from 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' which starts Aidan Turner. Photo by Johan Persson

Ireland’s history of terror very rarely makes for comedic material, but audiences at London’s Noel Coward Theatre howled with laughter watching gory drama The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which tells the tale of a psychotic Republican extremist turned down by the IRA for being too violent.

The dark comedy set on Ireland’s rocky Aran Islands in the early 1990s begins with two men looking at the mangled corpse of a black cat laid out on the kitchen table. The feline, named “Wee Thomas”, belongs to mad Padraic (played brilliantly by Aidan Turner on his West End debut) and until that day was his only friend in the world. Padraic’s father, Donny (Denis Conway), had been looking after Wee Thomas while his son goes around “bombing places” as part of IRA splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army.

We first meet Padraic on the mainland where he is pulling the toenails off a Belfast drug dealer (Brian Martin) for selling substances to kids. Padraic has an issue with the dealer selling to Catholic children (he’s not fussed about whether the Protestants indulge) because it distracts them from being true patriots. Padraic himself is not interested in any “social activities that don’t involve the freeing of Ulster”. But a phone call from his father, who tells him his cat is “poorly”, sends him rushing back to Inishmore.

Turner’s bloodthirsty and volatile Padraic is a far cry from the heroic Cornish miner he plays in Poldark, the BBC drama which led to the Irish star gaining heart-throb status. But the change in role suits Turner perfectly as he switches from torturing madman to sobbing animal-lover in the scene with the drug dealer with bang on comedic timing.

From left Donny (Denis Conway), Davey (Chris Walley) and Padraic (Aidan Turner). Johan Persson
From left: Denis Conway, Chris Walley and Aidan Turner. Photo by Johan Persson

As he dashes back to the island, his father Donny and dim-witted Davey (the unfortunate neighbour who found Wee Thomas’s body on the road) try to disguise a kidnapped ginger cat as a substitute using black shoe polish. Conway and Chris Walley, who plays Davey, make a brilliant double act as two islanders who have unwittingly been caught up in all the extremist madness. As Padraic prepares to blow the pair’s brains out suspecting their involvement in his cat’s death, Donny comments: “Do you know, I think he’s got worse since he’s been away.”

Written in 1994, when to most people peace in Northern Ireland would have seemed a distant prospect, it took seven years before any theatre would show Martin McDonagh’s comedy. The play was deemed too controversial given that terror attacks continued well into the 1990s, one of which is referenced by Padraic. But McDonagh, whose film credits include In Bruges and most recently Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, has always maintained that The Lieutenant is “a violent play that is wholeheartedly ­anti-violence”. His target is not the victims of terror, but more extremists who use their end goal, in this case the freedom of ­Ulster, to justify any kind of extreme violence.

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The revival of The Lieutenant in London 17 years after it premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company has certainly benefited from advances made in stage production. The frequent gun shots make the audience jump, while some of the gore and blood-splattering is realistic enough to make the faint-hearted feel queasy. The robotic cats were pretty unbelievable, but a necessity given that one has its head bashed in and the other is shot at point-blank range. Fanatical cat-lovers will be glad to hear that no animals were harmed during the making of this play.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs until September 8 at the Noel Coward Theatre, London