Wayne Jordan’s production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, a reference to the flag of freedom used, revives a drama that could so easily be untouched. Set during the Easter rising of 1916, the play shows us life in a tenement block and the effects on the ordinary lives of the Irish working class. At almost 3 hours long it is a lengthy play, which Sean O’Casey was criticised for when the play was first performed in 1926, something that still holds true today.
The story hinges on the marriage between Jack and Nora Clitheroe, portrayed by the charismatic Barry Ward and beautiful Nelly Campbell. Their love is put in jeopardy when Jack re-joins the Irish Citizens Army after being made Commandant. Fast forward an act and the Easter rising is just beginning, bringing an abrupt end to any hope that the play might take a happier route.
The first half is, in places, enjoyable. There are entertaining elements; comedic turns and sharp banter between characters like Mrs Gogan, Bessie Burgess and Fluther Good. However, apart from the initial scene between Nora and Jack it was hard to connect with the characters. Even the sight of poor Mollser Gogan, wasting away from consumption didn’t do much, except an inevitable sense of pity. The drawn out scene in the bar with the prostitute, played by an overacting Kate Brennan, could easily have been cut without any effect on the overall story. Despite touching moments, the first half is undermined by laborious pacing in the first two acts. The scene between Rosie the prostitute and Fluther Good in particular, fall flat. It is too long, and largely boring.
The second half does pick up, thanks to a great performance by Roxanna Nic Liam as the dying Mollser. She managed to steal the scenes where Nora was not present with each expressive move and word. But it was Kelly Campbell as Nora; the young woman gone mad with worry for her husband, and then grief for her stillborn child; who shone through. Every tear, every emotion so raw and real, it is hard to imagine how she can give so much night after night. The ensemble cast however never quite show themselves off; only after a tragic turn of events do they spring to life.
The Irish accents were superb from the mostly native cast, but any Southern English audience members will find themselves cringing at the cockney accents of the two soldiers. Uncomfortable and awkward, they were a huge distraction from the devastating climax of the play.
If you have 3 hours to spare, it’s worth a watch, if not just to see the fantastic Kelly Campbell. But have a coffee and take a cushion-you’re in for a long night.