THE WALWORTH FARCE at Southwark Playhouse Elephant
“The play has many levels but is predominantly delivered on one strata of sensationalism.”
The opening moments of “The Walworth Farce” are silent and surreal. But our minds are clamouring with questions. Why, for instance, is the guy stage left dressed in just his Y-fronts and ironing a dress on a makeshift cardboard coffin? Why is the man, centre stage, polishing a silver cup, making guttural sounds, and flexing his muscles? Enter a third character, a shaved pathway running through the top of his head, unpacking a giant salami from a shopping bag. They all convene centre stage – the first man now in full drag – and appear to be enacting a funeral. They wander in and out of wardrobes. There is talk of a dead stallion landing on ‘Mammy’, killing her outright. One claims to be a brain surgeon. There is fury over the erroneous shopping bag (more, of which, later – it becomes pivotal to the action).
The pieces gradually come together to form some sort of blurred picture. But questions remain and the accessibility still lies beyond our grasp. Enda Walsh’s 2006 black comedy is an odd, although brave, choice to open the new branch of Southwark Playhouse. There is no doubt that the setting of Walsh’s grim farce was an underlying factor. The high rise flat in which the play’s characters are holed up towers above the chaos of the Elephant and Castle roundabout. But, like the apartment which can only be reached by the fifteen flights of stairs, this revival has the same level of inaccessibility.
The bizarre scenario is routine for Dinny (Dan Skinner), Sean (Emmet Byrne) and Blake (Killian Coyle). They have been re-enacting, every day for ten years now, the events that forced them to leave their family home in Cork for London. Dinny’s repressive, bullying father figure forces his two sons to re-imagine the events by forcing on them his own warped version of the facts. Sean vaguely remembers the reality, but Blake has no choice but to take his father’s word for it. Sean is allowed out of the flat once a day to go to Tesco, otherwise the boys are imprisoned, literally and emotionally. The multiple locks on the door of Anisha Fields’ impressively grimy set are one of many metaphors that smatter the action and the language. The play has many levels but is predominantly delivered on one strata of sensationalism.
The performances are undeniably impressive, whether grappling with the heightened dynamics of the family or with the technical intricacies of Nicky Allpress’ stylishly choreographed pacing of the narrative. Skinner, as Dinny, avoids the ridiculous by instilling fear, dressing his tyranny in the spurious claim to be protecting his sons. Killian Doyle, as well as portraying the susceptible younger brother Blake, dons various wigs to represent all the female characters from the childhood memories. Emmet Byrne plays the men in the play within the play, but comes into his own as Sean – afraid to challenge but eventually forced to do so with a horrific and tragic outcome.
The relentless replaying of scenes suffers from a lack of regard for audience appeal. Until the arrival of Hayley, the checkout girl from Tesco who has turned up with the correct shopping bag that Sean should have brought home. Rachelle Diedericks brings a crucial breath of fresh air and a much-needed human touch into the surrealism. Although events become even more sinister, it is more believable. Hayley’s initial bubbly attraction to Sean is quickly shattered and, amid the chaotic realisation, Diedericks’ subtle performance is the one to draw the only real concern or empathy we might feel.
“What are we if we are not our stories?” asks Dinny? But, then again, what are we if those stories are fake. Re-invented to suit our needs. To survive even. Beneath the cluttered allegories and ramshackle absurdism that is presented on stage, there is a poignant, desperate, potentially funny, and equally tragic, terrifying and sad tale to be told. The desire to dig deep and find it is a challenge. But one that is worth accepting.
Reviewed on 24th February 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by David Jensen
Previously reviewed at Southwark Playhouse venues: