The Lonesome West

Bille Brown Studio (Queensland Theatre Company)


A richly comic and very entertaining play, Lonesome West depicts the highly dysfunctional relationship between two brothers in a remote part of Ireland. The third in Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy (but not requiring knowledge of the other plays), it succeeds profoundly in showing the raw side of life in a deprived and violent community, and having us think about the causes and consequences of such a depressing environment.

Not that McDonagh encourages analysis. In an interview he said: “People should leave a theatre with the same feeling that you get after a really good rock concert. You don’t want to talk about it, you just let it buzz into you. I can’t stand people analysing things. A play should be a thrill like a fantastic rollercoaster.”

It is indeed a rollercoaster ride we get. Fresh from burying their father, Coleman (Hayden Spencer) and Valene (Iain Gardiner) demonstrate from the outset mutual antipathy and destructiveness. Valene appears to have the upper hand, as owner of all the run-down little house’s material possessions, which he jealously guards from Coleman. His whiskey in particular: he keeps his bottle in a cake tin around which he wraps copious quantities of tape, checking the level in the bottle religiously to ensure Coleman hasn’t been helping himself. His religiosity also extends to collecting little plastic figurines of the saints, which he displays on the mantelpiece and textracolors prominently with his initial to establish their ownership. These figurines come to a sticky end at a later stage.

The brothers seem subhuman, lacking ordinary compassion, care or dignity. When a friend suicides Coleman plagues the lad’s mother with interrogations about whether vol-au-vents will be served at the wake. They derive malicious pleasure from reading of other people’s misfortunes in trashy magazines or in celebrating the dastardly exploits of the local St Trinians’-like under-12 girls’ football team, who are coached by parish priest Fr Welsh.

By the end of Act I there has been such a laying on of mutual distrust, deep hurts, relentless goading and a climactic act of gross destruction of one brother’s cherished possessions, that you spend interval wondering how on earth McDonagh is going to resolve it all. But he does, although not before visiting upon his characters even more ghastly torments.

The production is well cast; the acting is first-rate. Spencer is his usual over-the-top self, exuberant, hilarious and very physical. Gardiner is superb as his petty-minded younger brother. Bryan Probets as Fr Welsh is a gentle and touchingly humane figure, a whiskey priest feeling helpless and blaming himself in the face of an onslaught of murder and self-destruction in the community. Kellie Jones as the fresh and nubile schoolgirl Girleen is a perfect foil to the behavior of the three males.

The actors work so well together that it is difficult to pick a “man of the match”, but I lean towards Gardiner: his quirky mannerisms, scratchings, tilts of the head, quizzical looks, whining and whimpering intonations are just exquisite. A tiny gesture by Gardiner at the conclusion of Act 1 has the audience chuckling as they file out for interval.

Aside from the exaggerations of comedic theatre, Lonesome West leaves you pondering how such people come to be, or perhaps how thin a veneer civilisation is. But people of such primitive and antisocial orientation occur at all levels of all societies, and are within each of us: “Well we’re all cruel aren’t we,” McDonagh has said.

Yet for all their grossness the pair have a distinct likeability. Clearly the priest sees in them the hope of redemption, and they finally begin to discern this themselves. But at some points poor Fr Welsh in his depths of despair and drunkenness becomes like the brothers he is trying to save in one richly comedic moment railing against his own under-12s football team.

Loneliness is clearly a fundamental issue, particularly for the well-meaning priest who quite simply has not a soul to whom he can relate. Loneliness also figures in the life of Girlene, with her yearnings for half-decent masculine company. The emptiness in the brothers’ relationship raises all sorts of questions about their community and their nurturing. The little that is said about their father betrays a thoughtless and reckless individual whose main claim to fame is yelling abuse at nuns; the silence about the boys’ mother is eloquent.

The production boasts a splendid set walls peppered with gunshot, dilapidated furniture, a shotgun on the wall adjoining religious emblems and transforms into a river bank, with overhanging branches and rippling stream, with great light and sound work. The characters are clad in suitably daggy dress. There are also clever effects involving the stove and the misues to which it is put.

There is some great pugilistic action under Scott Witt’s fight direction. On opening night some of the fist throwing came across more as air punches than is normally the case, but there are certainly a lot of them, not to mention menacing activities with knives and shotguns. It’s certainly not your everyday family.

The cast have been well coached in dialogue, displaying very convincing Irish accents at times incomprehensible, which perhaps is part of the verisimilitude. Speaking of which, two lapses: I would have expected a lot of smoking from these sorts of characters (although to do this right would have exposed cast and audience to considerable health risks); and it is surprising to find the play is set in the present day, rather than in the mid-20th century or earlier. I am sure that a priest living a life of loneliness and despair in a contemporary remote Irish parish would only be an email or mobile phone call away from pastoral assistance, and an army of social workers would surely have bundled off the two brothers by now.

But these are the most minor of quibbles. Lonesome West is a splendid show. It puts to the test McDonagh’s own youthful antipathy to theatre: “I’m coming to the theatre with a disrespect for it. I’m coming from a film fan’s perspective on theatre. … Theatre bored the socks off me. I only ever went to see film stars.”

Director Jon Halpin shows a deft hand in making it all work so well. It is an excellent script; it would be difficult to imagine a better production.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 6th August 2003)