Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

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The Seafarer

The Loft, Leamington Spa


Baldoyle mansion might reasonably be called both a ghastly and a ghostly castle. At least that’s what it emerges as in Conor McPherson’s distinctly unpleasant setting for The Seafarer (why seafarer?). Unpleasant, foul-smelling, noisome, tasteless, littered, repulsive, ill favoured in every possible way. And rather fun.

Dublin-born McPherson, whose plays have won numerous Olivier and other awards, has been credited with being in the finest tradition of O’Casey, Synge, Beckett, Brian Friel – that Irish tradition to which the Loft, now celebrating its amazing centenary, has so often paid tribute. Not all have carried off actual awards, but where not, nominations have nonetheless flowed.

This play is amongst them. ‘A storytelling classic’; ‘A masterpiece of a play’ ‘A realistic fantasy’, ‘a wide-awake nightmare. ‘A breathtaking supernatural play (‘supernatural’ and ‘nightmare’ are key words). And more specific: ‘The writing is poetic, brutal, athletic, hilarious.’

Baldoyle is a real place, close to Howth, embracing Dublin Bay. Of the plot, part one is completely devoted to three main characters – two brothers, and an awkward but well meaning friend – a kind of arms rolled up, willing aide. More of those anon. Part 2 sees the appearance of a sinister, well-dressed, besuited individual whose deceptive affability cloaks a cunning, even vicious intention to entrap with a game of poker and emotionally, indeed utterly, destroy one of the four other hapless characters. 

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This sinister figure presents a ‘a stranger from a distant past’: in fact not entirely a stranger, but a devilish, Mephistophelean, fiendish, diabolical, and surely all but evil figure. He is set upon winning their traditional Christmas game of cards – he is alluding to a similar game some quarter of a century ago, and to deal – surely here he proved the Devil character – by which his opposite number he plans to enmesh and ensnare. This alien, malicious character surely suggests similar such judgmental characters in, say, Ibsen, or Wedekind, or even An Inspector calls.

Whatever ever one makes of the play’s quality – and there are one or two possible deficiencies especially in the second half – not least the two well managed and crucial but not entirely lucid, indeed combative, exchanges between the vulnerable, desperate brother and the sinister, domineering intruder, this Loft production, jointly directed by Tom O’Connor and David Hankins, with a deliciously shambolic cellar set design with perfect rickety theatres by Richard Moore, was a treat throughout the first half, and perhaps the second half also.

The trio whose antics people the first part are fabulously dominated by Phil Reynolds’ endlessly crusty, demanding, bitter, savagely ironic, curmudgeonly, tottering and endlessly drunken elder brother.

Amid vast quantities of liquor, a frankly disgusting character, he bullies, torments browbeats his younger brother James (Sharky), who has returned to look after him only to find himself lumbered with being a virtual manservant, a menial who’s obliged to perform every imaginable tedious, forlorn, joyless, utterly depressing task.


Craig Shelton, with a mixture of impressive assurance and terrible vulnerability, plays Sharky, a splendidly convincing and almost agonised performance; the additional interplay of him and his friend but additional victim Ivan (Christopher Stanford), both put upon and habitually abused by Reynolds’ loathsome Harkin, played up splendidly to the abominable misery guts.

The quality of McPherson’s writing in this first Act rests almost entirely on the endless banter, rowing, sneering, bitterness unleashed by Reynolds but also responded to by the others. There is almost a hint of Pinter. The point, I think, is that the verbal exchanges are quick-fire. But also the miserable content: revolting: ‘Jesus fucking drink’; ‘pissing fucking winos’; ‘Fucking gets in the way’; ‘In some fucking shite’; ‘don’s be a fucking child’; ‘I’m only trying to tell you a fucking story’. Reynolds’ nagging, bellowing brother (‘Are you listening to me, Ivan? Do you hear me, Ivan?’ ‘He came out crossways and his head’s been like that ever since’.

Do these ‘fuckings’ get in the way? Too many? Do they diminish the conversation? I think yes.

Which leaves the two remaining characters. Nicky (Peter Gillam), who has striven with Sharky for the wife they both aspire to, has a spectacularly wonky walk and wild, bizarre cross-legged totter, is fascinating to watch; crazy in fact, a sort of wizard performance. Most characters have a significant soliloquy, all vividly delivered – and eloquent enough to enhance large sections of the script. But it is Tom O’Connor’s two extended – and essential, and shamefully cruel, and vindictive - exchanges with Sharky – alluding back to that prison sequence 25 years ago – that are perhaps most important.

Arguably one can’t say they were exactly lucid enough, given that they introduce such crucial, and embittered, new material. But one surely cannot miss the seriousness of it. ‘Lose, and you go to Hell’. Scarcely a hopeful duel. Thank goodness Sharky unexpectedly wins and the vengeful figure is worsted.       

Roderic Dunnett


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