Southwark Playhouse Elephant – until 18 March 2023
It is more than 15 years since Enda Walsh’s play The Walworth Farce arrived in London and, like many big hits, the scale of its popularity then has been matched by the speed with which it has been forgotten. It is well due a revival, and the Southwark Playhouse’s revival, directed by Nicky Allpress is exciting. It is also the second play at the theatre’s freshly opened venue in the base of an Elephant and Castle tower block, the start of a much-delayed new era for the Playhouse. If the space provides capacity to examine the case for potential modern classics, it would be of great benefit to the London theatre scene.
The Walworth Farce is set in flat on the eponymous road, which begins outside the theatre’s front door. An Irish father, Dinny (Dan Skinner) and his two sons Blake (Killian Coyle) and Sean (Emmet Byrne) live together in circumstances which it soon becomes apparent are very weird indeed. Only Blake is allowed out, on strictly controlled supermarket trips, while Dinny forces the pair to join him in acting out an endless, absurdly involved ‘play’ which tells the story of their childhoods and their relationship to their revered mother, who is apparently at home in Cork.
The play includes many characters, and requires constant role swapping and costume changes, but only Diddy ever wins the ‘acting cup’. They all play multiple characters at the same time, staging conversations with a different wig on each hand. It is ludicrous, funny, then sinister and, when supermarket cashier Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks) arrives to disrupt the routine, threatening to expose the absurdity of their behaviour.
The cast are excellent, and very hard working. The mechanics of the play, which are absurdly complex, are beautifully managed by the performers who have to constantly work together. Skinner combines strutting menace with ludicrous self-delusion, and is exceptionally watchable. Byrne and Coyle are very convincing as brothers who are both connected and separated by their situation. On a neat, squalid set by Anisha Fields characters enter and exit via two large wardrobes during the play within the play, but when the actual front door opens the tone changes. Diedericks is enjoyable and funny as someone who has stumbled into a scenario way beyond her control.
The Walworth Farce is a very interesting play revisited from the perspective of the 2020s. The 2000s obsession with characters trapped in deeply unhealthy fantasy worlds, found in works by Jez Butterworth and Philip Ridley among others as well as Walsh, now seems a defining characteristic of the time. It seems to reflect the scale of change as the digital era arrived, not entirely acknowledged while it was happening. On the surface everything appeared to be the same, but underneath a collective mental breakdown was building. The characters in the Walworth Farce are paddling desperately to maintain their version of reality in the face of fear that, in the outside world, they may as well not exist.
Walsh takes the tropes of the Irish play – storytelling, close families, obsession with appearances – and spins them into a wild parody which smashes the stereotypes for good, hacks apart the traditional dramatic structure and paves the way for the new forms of performance that were to come. It is not to be missed.