Review by Paul Nelson
MENTION of an Irish play brings out the worst in people's imaginations.
They imagine the plays should be pale imitations of O'Casey,
Synge, the poet Yeats. Hardly anyone thinks of George Bernard
Shaw as a strictly Irish playwright.
Therefore it is with a renewed sense of wonderment to find a
real diamond in the GBS canon, and for once his tub-thumping is
kept under leash.
John Bull's Other Island, at the Tricycle in Kilburn,
is genuinely surprising.
The play was written in 1904, and has had very little airing
since, which is a pity because it happens to be one of the better
plays from the playwright's pen.
The plot sprawls a bit and some of the lesser characters are
not as finely drawn as the main ones, but having said that I must
temper it by insisting that the major characters are real and
The play's main surprise is that it is about national identity,
which is treated with a real lightness of touch.
I recall, from my student days in Dublin, two old Irish ladies
looking after their even more aged mother who insisted they were
Their doctor told me the family had practically come over with
Cromwell, but the identity was still theirs.
Unlike that trend, most English people become more Irish than
the Irish themselves, and it is only rarely that one comes across
an Irishman who would pass muster as a Barry Fitzgerald character
There is one in Shaw's play. The rascally Haffigan (John Dougall),
red nose and broad brogue is just such a character. Metaphorically,
with the traditional whiskey under his belt and a shillelagh under
his arm, he sets the tone of the play and from there it never
The baton is taken up by Keegan (Niall Buggy), a defrocked priest
dispensing wisdom and homespun, an abomination in the sight of
Father Dempsey (Mr Dougall again) and Cornelius Doyle (Michael
The very English Thomas Broadbent (Charles Edwards), travelling
to Ireland with his good friend and business partner, Lawrence
Doyle (Gerrard McArthur), a very disillusioned Irishman, decides
he must fight for the future of a dream Ireland, enter politics
and marry a local lass.
On the way a little property speculation would do no harm, just
a simple hotel complex and a golf course, you understand. Apparently
the ex-pat Brit hasn't changed at all in nearly a hundred years.
All of this nearly comes to pass in a most delightful way and
what the play fails to give is papered over expertly and seamlessly
by both director and cast, to present an evening you will long
Jokes from the bony hands of the wily Shaw will take you by surprise
as will the discovery that a lot of the modern outlook of today
was prevalent in England in those early Edwardian days.
It is an evening with which I could not find fault from the excellent
settings, the truly satisfactory direction and the performances
of a cast who deserve to move this play to the West End just as
surely as did the last play at this venue, Arthur Miller's
To my mind both the performances and the play are superior to
the latter. Judging by this production John Bull's Other Island
has a firm place in the theatre.
John Bull's Other Island by George Bernard Shaw. Directed
by Dominic Dromgoole, Designer Michael Taylor, Lighting Designer
Mathew Eagland, Sound designer Mike Winship. WITH: Ewen Cummins
(Hodson), Charles Edwards (Thomas Broadbent), John Dougall (Haffigan,
Father Dempsey), Gerrard McArthur (Lawrence Doyle), Niall Buggy
(Keegan), Alan Turkington (Patsy Farrell), Catherine Walker (Nora
Reilly), Michael O'Hagan (Cornelius Doyle), Mary Conlon (Aunt
Judy), Kieran Ahern (Matthew Haffigan) and David Ganly (Barney
Doran). Presented by Tricycle Theatre Company at The Tricycle
Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6, Tickets 020 7328 1000.