Saturday, September 14, 2019

Spud – restrained comedy respectfully set against the backdrop of the Great Famine (Lyric Theatre until 14 September)

Spud is a dark comedy set against the backdrop of the Great Famine– though never making jokes at its expense – that watches the prodigal thespian son Felix return home from treading the boards in England to stay with his brother Robert in the Story family home. With barely any food and the town closing down around them, can they survive?

While the Lyric main stage has Shirley Valentine pacing around her kitchen talking to the walls, next door in the Naughton Studio, it’s 1847 and Robert is conversing with his prize potato while audience members’ phones ping and buzz across the stalls, and one man further up my row sends a text message and the woman sitting behind begins to colourfully narrate her reactions to the on-stage revelations.

Kevin McAleer utters Robert’s lines with trademark drôle delivery, accentuating a dry sense of humour that is bound up in the desperation – and at times delusion – that accompanies not being able to eat. That he’s the only sibling left alive in Ireland says something of his resilience and stamina, as well as the “period of deep personal reflection” he went through after eating the household mirror.

Into this situation strides Conor Grimes wearing a top hat and leather gloves like someone out of a Dickens novel. He rather precisely enunciates each syllable and mispronounces French and Latin phrases in an accent that has lost all hints of his place of birth, his dandy character having stayed away from home for 12 years.

The promotional leaflet describes Spud as “a deep, dark comedy from the moral grey zone”. But the reality is that Grimes and McAleer steer well clear of the kind of very sharp humour that could have taken them much closer to the line of good taste. If anything, the drama is surprisingly muted. When a sense of immediate jeopardy is introduced to the plot, it is allowed to fade as the inescapable hunger takes its physical and mental toll.

Anachronisms are joyfully woven into the script, and amongst the puntastic dialogue are some nice lines that acknowledge the audience’s participation in the pretence: “at least we don’t eat the scenery”. The worst puns are followed by several waves of laughter as people catch on to what has been said at different speeds. The cast have the confidence to wait and not rush on too quickly.

The simple set is much enhanced by the moody and often striking lighting, and the beautiful soundscape that paints pictures of what director Conleth Hill carefully leaves unseen on the stage.

Spud is a restrained anti-melodrama whose comedy is almost overshadowed by the pathos provoked by watching these two daft brothers run out of ways to survive in the face of physical, financial and housing starvation. The boundaries of respect and gentle education are so well set that, while Ireland might not be ready for a full-on Horrible Histories treatment of the Irish Potato Famine, I’d have been happy for Grimes and McAleer’s script to take more risks and reward the audience with more laughs as they explored the devastating subject.

Spud finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on 14 September.