A drama set in a tenement about a family struggling with poverty during the Irish Civil War hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs. But in the hands of Sean O’Casey, that’s exactly what it turns out to be.
When the curtains first rise in Juno And The Paycock, Bob Crowley’s stunning design looks like a Vermeer painting brought to life. Rather than the claustrophobic surrounds Bunny Christie portrayed in last year’s tenement drama Men Should Weep, the play is set in a dilapidated palatial home with high ceilings, peeling painted walls and ripped velvet curtains. While it is no longer grand, the effect is overwhelming on the vast Lyttelton stage.
Residing in this, if not cramped, then intimate setting is the Boyle family. With daughter Mary on strike, son Johnny badly injured and husband Captain Jack a workshy waster, it is left to gutsy Juno to keep her family afloat. When a distant relative unexpectedly leaves them a small fortune, it seems all their problems are over. But with their spending out of control and the cheque always another few weeks away from arriving, it seems all is not as it first seemed.
O’Casey’s wickedly funny writing is in the safest of hands with Ciarán Hinds as the peacock in question. Fittingly strutting – more often drunkenly stumbling – around the stage with unrealistic ideas of grandeur and utter nonchalance towards the family’s dire situation, Jack causes Sinéad Cusack’s Juno no end of irritation. Winning the majority of laughs with his lazy oaf, boozing ways, Hinds is the perfect comic double act with his sidekick Joxer Daly (Risteard Cooper), whose mock psycho intellectualism and physical comedy provides more light relief.
The play is truly about Juno however, a woman so tough she can cope with everything while her husband can cope with nothing. While on paper O’Casey falls into stereotypes – a mother who runs the home with an iron will while her husband drinks away their money and the daughter dreams of a better life is hardly groundbreaking – Cusack’s resilience and constant fight is genuinely moving while Ronan Raftery is haunting as the pale, traumatised Johnny.
As in all great dramas, comedy is never far from tragedy and Juno And The Paycock sees its fair share of the bleaker side of life. While you desperately wish for a happy ending, it always seems inevitable that that just isn’t possible, however hard you laugh.