14 Apr- 2 May 2015
‘Lally the Scut’ is a piece of theatre that leaves you pondering its content long after the actors have taken their bow and left the stage. It is clearly a play designed to challenge and provoke, to take our assumptions and thoroughly subvert them, to expose aspects of modern Northern Irish society in all their underlying ugliness, no matter how unsettling, if not outright frightening, the view.
Young mother Lally is at her wits’ end trying to secure rescue for her son, who is trapped down a hole in the hills somewhere near the border. Already stressed by the mischievous nitpicking of mother-in-law Ellen and the gormlessness of husband Francis, she turns to the local townspeople for help. One problem: Lally, by her own admission, has been no saint in the past, and the residents of the town despise her just as much as she loathes them. Representing one potential bright spot on the horizon is journalist Owen, a local boy come good, back to revisit the scene of an earlier story he covered, a story that haunts him for a grave injustice he perceives to have been at the heart of it.
The first thing that ought to be addressed here is the impressive production. A joint effort between Tinderbox and the MAC, ‘Lally the Scut’ is undoubtedly an ambitious play. The hillside set is fantastic, suitably epic in scope to go alongside the normally unheard of twelve-strong cast. You believe you could be watching a film at times, so immersive is the backdrop. The sense of remote rural isolation lends itself brilliantly to the concept of a child lost and trapped down a hole with no help imminent, and even though the boy never (technically) appears, he feels like a thirteenth character haunting the story. Lighting is used to good effect to transition to scenes at the town square or in a church, and in one of the highlights, a looming Tricolour flag drops down over proceedings to provide a backdrop reminiscent, for this reviewer, of the Third Reich. Meanwhile, the final act sees the introduction of a video screen that, among other things, finds humorous use for one character’s image.
Following closely behind production as the best element of the show is the acting. The twelve performers here are without question among the best Northern Ireland has to offer, Roisin Gallagher as Lally obviously carrying much of the play. She is utterly excellent, ballsy and fierce on the surface, yet vulnerable and fearful of the limits to what she can do against small-town oppression beneath. She goes from being a force to be reckoned with in the first few moments to a woman broken by the final scene, an at-times uncomfortable to watch, but always compelling, character journey. Michael Condron is a good foil as the hopeless husband, engendering more sympathy than perhaps the character deserves, providing light relief in one of the play’s highlights at the start of the second half with a musical number that met with appreciative applause from the audience. Frank McCusker brings heart as reporter Owen, the only character besides Lally who could really be called a ‘good guy’, and responsible for my favourite line in the play: ‘Oh, an existential discourse! How marvellous’. Yet even he has his flaws, continually berating cameraman Gavin, and ultimately retreating when the going gets tough. Richard Clements as the ‘middle class’ English cameraman is perhaps the play’s best breath of fresh air, imbuing the role with physicality as he hops about the set in a carefree manner (something I suspect was fun to do, given the design of the stage), and amusingly oblivious to the localisms of the others.
Gerard McCabe brings a dry wit to the part of Digger Barnes, the workman in charge of the rescue, effortlessly shooting down Francis’ nonsense, and getting tongue-tied when cornered by the reporters in two enjoyable scenes. Representing the townspeople are Alan McKee as Bun McTasney and Vincent Higgins as Daly the Male, a sort of ‘good cop/bad cop’ double act, the former surely a recognisable figure for many as a self-important member of various local ‘boards’, McKee enjoying himself as an eye-rolling, face-pulling weasel of a man, while Higgins evokes certain famed political figures with manic rants about the ills of others, not least Lally. His is an often uncomfortable, sinister presence and quite enthralling to watch when in full swing- and yet, when we meet the character of the priest, Daly suddenly seems tame and safe in comparison. Tony Flynn, the actor portraying the cleric, is nothing short of superb- a frightening, mesmerising figure, but in a much quieter, more insidious way than Daly’s angry diatribes. He deceives the audience into first feeling sympathy for his anxiety and apparent psychological trauma, before betraying that response in the most horrible way. It is probably the most challenging role in the piece, and Flynn is consequently worth singling out for particular praise.
Maria Connolly as Rahab, the mother from hell, is almost in camp villain territory, but enjoyably so. She doesn’t go on such an obvious character journey, remaining wicked right to the end, but Connolly livens up every scene she’s in, and I would happily have had more of her. Similarly, Carol Moore as mother-in-law Ellen steals most of the scenes in which she features, her drawling ‘Who are ye?’ likely to be one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of this play in future, and along with Connolly, is someone I would like to have seen even more of.
Short-changed in terms of stage-time are Miche Doherty as Fork the Cat, and Tara Lynne O’Neill as Geri Sue, the latter in particular someone I was disappointed not to get more of (Doherty, at least, features heavily in the climactic scene). As Sinn Fein politician Geri Sue, she is a restrained Hitler in heels to Doherty’s unstable ex-terrorist against the backdrop of the looming Irish flag, reining him in from overtly threatening Lally and instead exchanging derogatory text messages about her with him as she pores over maps. In a show full of superb actors, she was one of the absolute highlights for me, and if Abbie Spallen ever wants to explore the character further in any spin-off, I’ll be first in line for a ticket.
If the production and acting are virtually unassailable, though, the script and story are, for me, slightly more problematic. In terms of scene-by-scene dialogue, Spallen is a terrific writer (my only slight niggle being an over-reliance on swearing), with the exchanges between Owen and Ellen, Daly’s excellent puppet-show explanation of the dissidents, and Geri Sue’s half-ditzy, half-tyrannical politician among the best highlights. As an overall story, however, I feel ‘Lally’ will not be palatable to everyone, the darkness it explores sometimes deeply uncomfortable, most glaringly in the scene between Lally and the priest. Most of the darker material in the play, from loose cannon Fork and townsman Daly’s pious fury, bubbling startlingly out of darkly comedic origins, feels well earned. But the scene with the priest is a wholly different affair. A disturbing watch (noticeably subtler in the published script), it may well leave some audiences with an unpleasant taste. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be in there, and the scene certainly has a compelling, horrifying power to it, but it’s pitch-black stuff, and could, for many viewers, feel jarring and out of place with the darkly humorous tone elsewhere, risking audiences failing to appreciate the scene in the way the writer intended- a problem of execution, in other words, rather than content.
‘Lally the Scut’, however, is a play with more than enough great elements to survive this misstep (if indeed most viewers even end up regarding it as one), and among these is Michael Duke’s direction, from the shoveling up of dirt into the air in the first scene (nicely symbolic), to Gavin’s energy as he hops about the set, to the great use of sound effects, to the haunting last few minutes with the camera screen. Props ranging from shotguns to barrels to iPads enhance the story well, while transitions are well enough handled that a necessary longer one during the second half, in order to set up the stage in a new way amidst the action, doesn’t grate or jar.
‘Lally the Scut’ has definitely left me thinking, and that can only ever be a good and stimulating thing. The show is well worth seeing for the set, production and acting alone, the local cast truly at the top of their game, and even if the actual story is uncomfortable and challenging at times, this seems to have been the intention. It is definitely a must-see, in order to make up your own mind, and will undoubtedly have people talking long after they’ve left the theatre.