Theatre Review – The Third Policeman

Jun 4 2010 | By More

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Sandra O’Malley as Man With No Name

Traverse Theatre

Review by Thom Dibdin

There were an inordinately complex number of bicycles tethered outside the Traverse theatre for the opening of Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s short run of their touring version of The Third Policeman.

Which will come as little surprise to fans of Flann O’Brien’s wonderful, crazy, infuriating, hilarious and generally downright brilliant novel. It contains, after all, O’Brien’s expansions on the Atomic Theory of particle migration. A magnificent piece of bunkum theory by which it is explained, with a completely straight face, that cyclists will, over time, turn into their own vehicles.

The surprise is that the bicycles had not succeeded in securing seats in the auditorium, leaving their owners tethered outside. Although it must be pointed out that there were a number of smokers lingering around the outside ashtray, in close proximity to the bicycles.

An equally straight face is brought to Jocelyn Clarke’s clear and perceptive adaptation of the book. A demeanour which is continued, up to a point, by director Niall Henry.

The strange, crippled narrator of the story, a man who has forgotten his own name, is played by Sandra O Malley with a strong sense of ritual. Her intoning of the introductory narrative comes with all the disregard for the natural cadences of speech exhibited by a hung-over lay-preacher reading the second lesson in church.

It creates a feeling of dislocation to the back-story of the narrator’s returning to find a man called Divney running his dead parents farm and pub, Divney’s insinuation into his life, their murder of an neighbour, Old Mather, for his money – and Divney’s fatal double crossing of the narrator himself.

As the story drops into the bizarre, so O Malley drops into natural cadences as she arrives at the nub of the whole production: the narrator’s strange perambulations through the world of a police station to which he runs, thinking himself still living, to report the theft of an American gold watch.

The Third Policeman, Fox, rides away

Sadly, it is at this point that Henry begins to demonstrate a tendency to poke up the humour of the piece with sub-Ministry of Funny Walks cavortings and self-consciously “funny” music from sound designer Joe Hunt.

The trouble is that no such underlining is necessary. While the narrator attempts to make sense of Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen’s obsession with bicycles, Henry brings in all sorts of silly business with doors and amusing sound effects. It’s funny enough, but it actively masks the surreal comedy of the piece.

It doesn’t impinge too detrimentally to the pace of the production, but what does do is stop it from flying as high as it might. It also stops the production from finding the deeper, more unsettling regions of the narrative in favour of displaying its more superficial elements.

There are strong elements to the direction, however, and Henry’s use of the ensemble is well worked. With O Malley all open-mouthed awe and simplicity, Ciaran McCauley is solidly plausible as Pluck, using his Atomic Theory to justify stealing the local’s bicycles. Their search for the lost parts, with Kellie Hughes as the narrator’s soul Joe orchestrating the parts’ discovery, is excellently done.

Jamie Vartan’s design is clever, but never overly so. From a giant book – presumably he narrator’s volume on his favourite philosopher De Selby – which forms the open stage’s main landscape, to the bicycle-dominated and starlit backdrop, it hints and broods in a way that is both knowing and unsettling.

A production which makes enough sense of a horrifyingly complex narrative to please the original’s fans and illuminate those who come new to it, but which sells itself short of what it might have been.

Run continues to Saturday 5th June.

Ticket details on Traverse Theatre website

Blue Raincoat Theatre Company website


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