Review – Misterman, National Theatre

Remember the excitement last time we had a guest blog? People talked for days. Well, stand by London, because we’ve got another as Milly Falls Into The Theatre again…

I must have not been paying attention when I booked these tickets as when we arrived and I realised we were in the vast space of the Lyttleton theatre for a one man show. I panicked slightly. It’s really big and Cillian Murphy bless him, is quite small: I’ve seen him in the flesh. An electrifying presence on screen, would he cut it on stage?

My worries were needless. As soon an Murphy ran onto the vast industrial warehouse set, his energy electrically charged the entire audience and captivated me for the entire duration. I love Enda Walsh’s writing and Murphy, who has been in and out of it since their mutual breakthrough with Disco Pigs in 1996, evidently does too. Here in this 90-minute monologue, he plays every man, woman, boy and girl in the town of Innisfree with such stunning gusto that you sometimes fear he’s going to break his neck. Pelting from end to clanging end of a vast, dodgy industrial lockup, he enacts one terrible day in the life of pious young sandal-wearer Thomas Magill, with the aid of tapes on which he has recorded his arguments with his neighbours and a bashed-up telly which speaks with the voice of his mother.

Cameos of locals like moaning mother Mrs O’Leary, whose 36-year-old son eats sugar puffs in his foul bedroom while she slaves, her hands torn to shred by ‘the harpic’, bring lightning flashes of the outside world. But, as in Walsh’s Pinteresque 2006 three-hander The Walworth Farce, this takes place in the electric, misfiring hinterland of an inner life that has drifted far beyond normal. We are in the echo chamber of Magill’s mind and he is a dreadfully unreliable narrator. Part everyman, part Christ figure, he tears through this bleak space, playing a cast of increasingly hostile small-town characters, and engaging in a ritualised dialogue with the disembodied voice of his “Mammy”. On a mission to bring religion and morality to the town, Magill records his conversations with his neighbours and jots down critical summaries of their characters, like a director giving performance notes to actors. The mood can turn on a sixpence, veering from cosy chats about jammy dodgers to manic, evangelical fervour.

The humour of the piece is not to be underestimated and I laughed out loud several times relishing the brilliant characterisation and sparky prose. The genius between the writing and Murphy’s performance is that I couldn’t shake of a feeling of dread and with good reason. The comic absurdity of Magill’s opening moments darkens to become a macabre study of a man who, in trying to control everything around him, has become slowly unhinged. The superb staging compliments this – bright piles of Christmas tree lights, luminous crucifixes, broken tapes and, in one corner, a tattered coat upon a stick, a reminder of Thomas’s late and heavily-lamented father.

As the show progresses we realise we are in the company of a dangerous madman who is convinced he has a hotline to God, and has been put on this earth to fulfil His will. Yet even as the violence mounts there is an innocence about Murphy’s mixed up anti-hero that makes the drama all the more disconcerting. There wasn’t a minute where I tuned out, and as the action swiftly mounted to become Catholic Crimewatch on LSD there were moments when I’m sure I forgot to breathe.

Walsh’s electric prose and Murphy’s unmissable performance combine to brilliantly suggest how religious faith can turn rancid and how loneliness and madness can walk hand in hand within a place that calls itself a ‘community’.

A startlingly original play that inch by inch is charming, reckless, manic and tender, it haunts the memory like a bad dream and I needed a cocktail and an in-depth discussion of what I had just seen afterwards to lift me out of Innisfree.