First published in The Times, Monday October 8 2018
A first glance at Michael Taylor’s minutely detailed one-room set raises fears that we will be trapped for 90 minutes in the limited territory of kitchen-sink realism. However, as the lights go up we realise there is something not quite right about this crowded picture. For starters, this is a room with no discernible door or windows. Odder still, the kitchen sink contains neither bowl nor dishes but a record player stacked with 45s.
In outline, Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk occupies similar terrain to his 2006 hit The Walworth Farce, in which a family obsessively enact and embellish the same play repeatedly within the poky surrounds of their London flat. In Ballyturk, the scenarios the two protagonists perform with ritualistic precision are even more elaborate, based around the many inhabitants of the imaginary town of the title, whose caricatures festoon the walls of the squalid setting.
Pic: John Johnston
The physical demands of these roles are considerable. Before embarking on each dramatic vignette the two men, played in Andy Arnold’s infectiously entertaining production by Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke, and identified only as One and Two, warm up to a string of Eighties pop standards. At one point O’Rourke is required to demonstrate his physical versatility by slowly morphing from one member of Ballyturk’s dramatis personae to another as a wild-eyed Donaldson recites the roll call.
While the bizarre humour of these scenes recalls the rich, surreal blather of Flann O’Brien’s writings, the central image of people retreating deep into fantasy and “filling a room with words” as a means of avoiding the fact of their mortality is unavoidably Beckettian. Both actors are adept at the physical comedy, but when the embodiment of death arrives in the form of Wendy Seager’s unflappable travelling salesman the writing takes on a poetic hue: Seager’s vision of “reaching life’s edge” is as comforting as it is frightening.
Pic: John Johnston
The show’s final stages provide the emotional counterweight to the broad comedy of the opening half, with the play becoming most eloquent in its scenes of silence, stillness and sad, knowing glances between the protagonists. All three main performances are haunting and memorable, while Arnold and his technical crew, including Mark Doubleday, the lighting designer, and Danny Krass, the sound designer, work wonders in creating a suitably uncanny atmosphere for Walsh’s play.