Lay Me Down Softly

Billy Roche
Presented by Wexford Arts Centre in association with Mosshouse
Tricycle Theatre

Lay Me Down Softly publicity image

Billy Roche has been a firm favourite at the Tricycle for a decade, since the theatre put on his Wexford Trilogy in one of those glorious days that allowed one to immerse oneself in the Irish world that he so lovingly created.

Lay Me Down Softly, first seen at the Abbey's smaller Peacock Theatre in Dublin in 2008, also takes place somewhere in rural Ireland, during the 1960s. It features a topic that is in the playwright's blood, having provided occupation and entertainment for both his father and grandfather, boxing.

This though is not the high-powered pay-per-view TV home of multi-millionaire world champions or even a bricks and mortar club. What Roche has recreated on stage is the tawdry atmosphere of the fairground booth where touring fighters would take on anybody willing to put up a few shillings in exchange for a black eye, a broken nose and a couple of missing teeth.

The fair is run by Theo, an ex-fighter played by Gary Lydon, who runs the fair with a rod of iron, happy to take on anyone who disagrees with his decisions.

Like so many of his workers, Theo is using the fair to escape from responsibilities. With his right hand man whom he treats more like a faithful pet dog, another ex-boxer turned trainer the impressive Michael O'Hagan's Peadar, Theo literally left his wife behind and has been running away ever since.

Anthony Morris seems strange casting for the leading fighter, Dean being the kind of flyweight that big bruisers would brush aside almost instantly. Since this character is a whining coward, maybe on reflection, the actor is appropriate.

Junior, his understudy, is much more the part in the body of the muscular, tattooed Dermot Murphy who looks as if he could hold his own with anybody. He is only second string because of a foot injury apparently caused by a skipping rope.

This crew is supplemented by a pair of contrasting women. Simone Kirby as hard as nails Lily is Theo's latest conquest, happy to run most of the business side of the fairground while in denial having walked out on her own husband.

Young Emer, nicely brought to the stage by Pagan McGrath, who rolls in from nowhere is Theo's pretty young daughter. Quite what she is after is unclear but Emer soon enough turns Junior's head, creating anger and jealousy amongst everyone else on stage.

On one level, this is a play about manhood, as first Dean and then Junior are put into the ring to fight an ex-pro called Joey Dempsey. Roche, who directs this British premiere himself, cleverly allows the bouts to take place in blackout, saving the audience from excesses of blood, sweat and tears.

As well as the thrill of the fight, the one and three-quarter hour drama says much about the characters who can be seen both as of their time and timeless. Each has something to hide from and only Emer has any ambition or direction.

Drifters like this rarely find their way into plays, with the exception of Jez Butterworth's glorious Johnny Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. Billy Roche clearly understands the types that he writes about and provides great depth of character. This means that viewers are likely to find themselves thinking about Lay Me Down Softly long after they leave Kilburn.

Playing until 6 August

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?