John Bull's Other Island
George Bernard Shaw
It is very sad that a hundred years after George Bernard Shaw wrote John Bull's Other Island, its two main subjects, the Irish problem and inconsiderate colonialism are still instantly recognisable.
In Dominic Dromgoole's centenary production, Charles Edwards plays Thomas Broadbent, the kind of English political fool that Shaw delights in lampooning. He is keen to travel to Ireland to convert the heathen by creating a kind of garden city based on Welwyn. His idea of "helping" the Irish is to mortgage and foreclose so that he can build a golf resort on their land. He's not above stealing the women either.
His partner in crime, Lawrence Doyle (played by Gerrard MacArthur) is a lugubrious Irishman who, after eighteen years away is reluctant to return. The main reason for this appears to be the distant attentions of the sweet Nora Reilly (Catherine Walker).
The Irish are a pretty odd bunch themselves. As well as Doyle's father Cornelius (Michael O'Hagan), the audience is introduced to a pair of new landowners played by Kieran Aherne and David Ganly. They haven't really a clue what they are doing as they had just been through the equivalent of the Russian emancipation of the serfs. Shaw asks us to consider ignorance is justification enough for disenfranchising them once again and makes his own opinion perfectly clear.
The key Irish character is the defrocked priest, Mr Keegan, a latterday St Francis, played with great aplomb by Niall Buggy. He may be completely mad but he can still run rings around the electioneering Englishman, Broadbent. He also has the kind of sanity and perception that only the truly mad possess.
This structure allows Shaw, in didactic mode, to expound his views on Irish Home Rule and on Englishmen who decide to stick their noses in where they are not wanted. He has great fun at the expense of Broadbent, both in matters of love and diplomacy.
Praise must also be heaped on designer Michael Taylor whose wonderful set converts almost instantly from a London office into a rocky corner of Ireland, thence to a garden and a living room. Each looks absolutely convincing and creates a feeling of time and place that enhances the production.
Eventually though it is Shaw's views that win out in this uneven comedy. They all too often overtake the plot, which can get left far behind. He does though manage some moments of great humour, in particular with some tall tales of an independent pig.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher