Friday, April 22, 2016

Spike Milligan’s Puckoon: novel, full tilt and madly imaginative (The MAC until 30 April + tour)

Somewhere north east of Sligo lies the sleepy village of Puckoon with three policemen, a graveyard, a pub and a host of eccentric madcap characters. It’s the location for Spike Milligan’s comic novel that was dramatised after his death by Vincent Higgins and performed by Big Telly Theatre Company. Their revival of the show is currently touring Britain and Ireland.

Paul Boyd (“The Writer”) superbly anchors the absurd show from behind a piano in the corner of the stage. The rest of the cast play tin whistles, ukuleles, guitars, drums, and sing along in-between nipping across the stage to act out scenes.

Paddy Jenkins plays Dan Milligan, a fictional fool who quickly reveals that the normal rules of theatre have been suspended – never mind the fourth wall broken – and argues back and forth about his role with The Writer. I’ve never seen a show with as many props, non sequiturs and raised eyebrows.

Patrick J O’Reilly and Keith Singleton act like a pair of eejits who switch genders and characters as if someone was snapping at a button on their remote control. They frustrate The Writer’s attempts to move the story on and are deservedly rewarded with some of the heartiest laughs of the night. Keith Singleton’s portrayal of an Ulster Unionist with loose denture could be spun off into a whole show of its own. John O Mahony and Giles Stoakley complete the cast.
“The Lord will provide … but is behind with his payments.”

Having set up the quirky world of Puckoon, we reach the point when life in the village changes for ever. The Ulster Boundary Commission decide that the border will be somewhat arbitrarily drawn through the middle of the community, dividing the church from its graveyard. Add a border post, officious upholders of rules and bomb smugglers and the pandemonium unravels.

Lighting designer Kevin Smith has cunningly adapted some furniture props so beams of light illuminate actors’ faces from below. Along with the clouds of fog that eerily linger above the cast’s heads, the stained glass window effect adds to the set without cluttering the stage.

The randomness of Milligan’s writings is retained in the script, and the humour is simultaneously visual, physical and oral. And this is where Puckoon succeeds and The 39 Steps falters. Acting out a Hitchcock film on stage with only three actors is comical to watch, but Puckoon is imaginative in so many other dimensions.

While the original novel was written while in Australia, Puckoon appositely satirises Irish sensibilities about identity and state interference. The entertainment is novel, the performances full tilt, and the storyline as hard to unravel as Spike Milligan’s mind. Director Zoë Seaton and musical director/actor Paul Boyd have created a comical gem.

Catch Puckoon at The MAC until Saturday 30 April before it tours Strabane, Ballymun, Naas, Armagh, Coleraine, Cork, Bray, Ennis, Wales, England and Scotland (dates and locations on Big Telly website).

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