Lloyd Evans

Dumb and dumber | 12 July 2018

Plus: a revolting, chaotic play about the Calais Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre

Dumb and dumber | 12 July 2018
Text settings

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noël Coward Theatre, until 8 September

The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, until 3 November

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a knockabout farce set during the Troubles. Like Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch it uses the expiry of a pet to examine human obsessiveness and self-delusion. But it takes two hours rather than three minutes to make its point. We meet a handsome terrorist, Padraic (Aidan Turner), whose adoration of his black cat symbolises his crazed devotion to republicanism. The cat is accidentally run over by Davey, an amiable twerp on a bike, who must find a new cat or face reprisals from the insanely brutal Padraic. Donny, Padraic’s dad, offers to help Davey and they borrow a ginger cat, which they blacken with boot polish.

That’s the level of narrative ingenuity here: children’s television. The writer, Martin McDonagh, works from a very limited psychological palette. He can barely write a female character and his males have only two discernible traits, stupidity and malice. Donny and Davey are merely stupid. Padraic is stupid and malicious. The rest of the characters — a group of thugs chasing Padraic over some dispute — are so stupidthat their malice endangers no one but themselves.

The play unfolds as a series of joke torture sessions and comedy executions performed by blithering dimwits. ‘’Tis incidents loik dis does put tourists off Oirland,’ says a bumpkin with the IQ of a starfish. The Irish accents seemed to me to lack precision. I’m no expert but I could tell that Davey (Chris Walley) sounded like a Kerryman while Donny, his neighbour, had a Cork or a Limerick accent. And the thugs pursuing Padraic talked like Ulstermen some of the time, and like southern Irishmen the rest of the time.

It would be easy to dismiss this piffle as a failed experiment but the play includes details of recent history. McDonagh specifies that Padraic is a lieutenant in the Irish National Liberation Army, which in March 1979 murdered the first man to escape from Colditz, Airey Neave, MP. He was killed in the car park of the House of Commons about half a mile from the theatre, and his name is featured in the script. Nobody seems to have considered that this might be a discourtesy to the slaughtered MP’s family, and to members of the current parliament. Would it be acceptable, a decade or so from now, to stage a farce involving gags about Jo Cox’s killer?

The production is bound to prosper thanks to its star, Aidan Turner, who has wisely copied Katie Price by monetising his chest. At press night, he wore a white T-shirt throughout the play. The audience had paid to see it removed. It stayed on. Another blunder.

The elegant Playhouse Theatre has been converted into a squalid soup kitchen for a show about the Calais Jungle. Play-goers are squashed into hard, tiny benches resting on a floor strewn with reeking woodchips. The actors bustle around posing as migrants, singing songs, yelling at the police, banging drums, bursting into tears and foisting leaflets and business card on the audience.

This is a deliberately revolting and chaotic play that makes harsh judgments about everyone concerned. The British charity workers are portrayed as drippy losers. ‘You’re better than us,’ sobs an Englishwoman who wants to romanticise an Eritrean refugee. ‘You’re brighter. Stronger,’ she mopes. An upper-class thicko says that the Jungle suits him because it’s the first workplace he has ever known where his Etonian background didn’t encourage bullying. The refugees come across as self-seeking and disingenuous. The term ‘jungle’, we learn, was coined by Afghans from their word ‘dzhangal’, meaning ‘forest’, but once the English translation became known the migrants denounced ‘British racists’ for labelling them as animals. An African woman explains the lure of Calais. ‘For refugee, English law is best in Europe.’ This reveals that migrants are not heroic martyrs but bargain-hunters in the global citizenship market. Europe offers the best deal in the world, and Britain offers the best deal in Europe. Hence the pressure.

The play doesn’t want to examine how population flows have changed recently and what those changes mean. A few decades ago migrants came here to earn money and to send a portion of their income home. Today’s migrants seek more. They crave Britain’s ideology, our belief in free speech, the rule of law, and so on. But no mechanism exists to help the successful migrant return to his homeland and convert its failed legal structures into a functioning democracy. Yet a refugee who neglects that duty is condemning the country he has abandoned to relive the nightmare he has escaped.

The difficulty is that migrants lack the resources to install democratic institutions in the developing world. To do that requires first-world expertise. It requires Britain, in other words, to revisit the countries of the tropics and build afresh. Another empire? No chance of that.