By Mark Power
Directed by Patrick Davies
Presented by Science of Humans
Basement Theatre, Auckland | February 25-March 8
I could listen to people talk in Irish accents all day long. Even more so when actors with generally good voices are talking in Irish accents. This isn’t the only pleasure of black comedy The Slapdash Assassin, but it’s a notable one.
The title suggests a Martin McDonagh-esque play in the vein of The Lonesome West or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and although this has the ash-black wit of those plays, The Slapdash Assassin is a work that is rooted in a more naturalistic domesticity than McDonagh’s oeuvre.
In saying that, this is still a play where the protagonist is an assassin, albeit, as the title suggests, a slapdash one, so it’s at least a little bit heightened. The play, however, is more concerned with the fallout following the return of the prodigal son, or in this case, a grandson who comes back from Vegas with the woman he has married. The grandson had to leave the priesthood to do so, which throws a spanner in the works of this Irish family.
British playwright Mark Power doesn’t quite capture the musicality that other playwrights have found in the Irish dialect, but he has found a unique world to place what is essentially a family drama in. It’s a world where a distant cousin is accepted as a member of the family, and this distant cousin (spectacularly played by Jeremy Ellwood), being an assassin, even if not a very good one, is more a quirk than a major plot point. The play digs deep into what ties a family together, and the deep hold that past events have on our psyche, which carries the play towards an striking, if not particularly shocking, ending.
The largest pleasure in the play comes from watching a great cast riff and play with each other. Ellwood, as mentioned, is spectacular, but he’s not alone in this. As the other lead of the play, Damian Avery brings a believably affability to his role as the now married ex-priest; I bought both that this guy would become a priest and that he would also leave the priesthood. Mick Innes brings his own unique crotchety charm to the patriarch of this family, while Stephen Papps is a villain of the most imposingly mundane variety. These two in particular play off each other nicely, polar opposites both visually and in their styles of acting. In smaller roles, John Watson’s bishop recalls an unseen Father Ted spinoff and Chelsea McEwan Millar brings unexpected steel and verve to her character. All actors slip in and out of their accents occasionally, but when everybody is on, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen to these actors, and they all make the dialogue spark where it mightn’t necessarily have done so on the page.
The play is a delight to look at, with Bex Isemonger’s set being a very literal cross-section of a decrepit family home. It’s less like we’re watching this play and more like we’re taking part in it. Sitting in the front row, I was close enough to reach out with my leg and kick things, should I be so inclined to do so. The photorealism of the set, complete with faded wallpaper and sink, supports the world that the play sets up perfectly. Amber Molloy’s subtle lighting accentuates the drama of the more heightened scenes, and lends the play some beauty in the rare quieter moments.
Only occasionally does this play misstep, with some bizarre Johnny Cash towards the middle that risks destroying an already beautiful moment. For the most part, though, this is a worthy addition to the impressive canon of Irish plays, many of which don’t see these shores very often. See it.