Novelists, poets, painters and filmmakers, look away. Theatre, my friends, is where it’s at. Plays are hands down the most thrilling art form we have for exploring the human condition. Don’t believe me? Get yourself down to Southwark Playhouse’s impressive new Elephant & Castle venue for Enda Walsh’s magnificent Walworth Farce. Then come and tell me a mere book or TV box set has the same impact. We’re way, way past Happy Valley, folks.
The play, first seen in 2006, tells the tale of two dysfunctional brothers living with their abusive father in a scummy high-rise flat on Walworth Road; a very real place a stone’s throw from the venue itself. The Irish family, notably missing the mother, is far from their home in Cork and its members have seemingly been living in a cycle of poverty, violence and tragedy for years. Walsh’s remarkable achievement is turning this scenario of deprivation on its head and adopting a form that is diametrically opposed to what we are used to. The Walworth Farce is, indeed, a farce. It is a proper, high-energy, no-holds-barred funny one too. We can’t relax, though. The laughs are there, but they’re nervous ones. We know they are merely a distraction from very real pain. Despite everyone racing around the set and frantically bursting in and out of cupboards, we know a reckoning is coming. We know things are not going to end well.
Thankfully there’s no heavy-handed overly portentous direction going on. If anything, Nicky Allpress leads the action with a clownish light touch. A lot of the gags are reminiscent of Rick Mayall and Ade Edmonson’s school of hard knocks and pratfalls. This is meant, of course, entirely as a compliment. It’s a performance style that appears loose-limbed and chaotic, but you know comes from tight choreography, hard work and discipline. Fight Director Claire Llewellyn’s skills are evident too. All her punches land initially comically but, as the deception falls away, with a sickening feel of reality too.
In the cast, Dan Skinner, perhaps familiar to TV comedy fans as Angelos Epithemiou, walks an impressive line between breathless comedy and still, unflinching menace as Dinny, the father at the heart of the story. Costume and set designer Anisha Fields puts him in a jacket that, being a size too small, gives his character an air of desperation before he has said a word. All her costumes make statements and the set practically smells of moral decay. I’m not sure if she’s directly responsible for one particular canine prop, but it almost steals the show alone.
Killian Coyle and Emmet Byrne are both compelling as the two sons who are trapped by Dinny’s abuse. It is Byrne, however, who shows the most vulnerability and captures the audience’s heart before breaking it in an almost unbearable final few moments. The cast is completed by Rachelle Diedericks as Hayley, a Tesco worker who climbs fifteen storeys to make a fateful entrance at the end of the first act. Diedericks gives a fine performance but is hampered by an underwritten role. This may be a tale predominantly focused on male angst but it’s still a shame to see a talented young actor left without much to do.
This slight misstep aside, The Walworth Farce deserves to play to packed houses. Walsh’s beautiful text uses theatre so inventively. It opens your heart, challenges your thinking and forces you to look at trauma and damage, perhaps even your own, afresh. There is not necessarily a happy ending, but its value lies in a relentless drive to uncover our truth and find empathy and understanding.
It is a genuine pleasure to report that The Southwark Playhouse Elephant, clearly an exciting new venue we should all celebrate, has chosen its first professional production so wisely. It bodes well for the future.
Written by: Enda Walsh
Directed by: Nicky Allpress
Set & Costume by: Anisha Fields
Lighting by: Luciá Sanchez Roldán
Sound Design & Composed by: Joseff Harris
Produced by: New Wolf Productions
The Walworth Farce plays at Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) until 18 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.