Juno and the Paycock

Association of Regional Theatres production revives a classic of Irish theatre

It’s been a while since I’ve watched an actual play in the Grand Opera House - it’s been all musicals for me lately. So initially I struggle to hear what the characters in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock are saying, all the way down there on the stage, with no musicians to back them up.

Is it a glitch with the sound desk, or the ringing of mobile phones that dampens the sound? Either way, the level of the actors soon picks up and I can relax into one of the very best Irish plays Mrs Madigan, Joxer and Juno ever written. Or so I’ve heard.

Juno and the Paycock was first staged in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1924. The second in O’Casey’s ‘Dublin Trilogy’, the play deals with various themes, from the Irish republican struggle following the 1916 Easter Rising, to the plight of the working class and the ever-present influence of alcohol and the Catholic church in Irish society.

Juno and ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle inhabit a two-room apartment in a Dublin tenement building with their daughter Mary and son Johnny. It’s a hard life made harder by Jack’s unwillingness to do anything other than shoot the breeze with his less-than-savoury friend and drinking buddy, Joxer Daly.

When an unexpected inheritance promises to raise the Boyles to new heights, things begin to spin out of control. Juno and Captain Jack spend what they don’t yet have, and when Mary falls pregnant with the baby of the untrustworthy English solicitor, Mr Bentham, things threaten to rip the Boyle clan apart. 

Will the IRA finally catch up with the troubled Johnny, and what will become of Mary and her bastard child?

It may be set during a time of civil strife and socio-economic hardship, but Juno and the Paycock is not, in the main, a dark play.

O’Casey was able to marry comedy and tragedy seamlessly in his work, and whilst Juno does confront the dark side of life – alcoholism, the realities of the republican armed struggle, the harsh attitude toward extramarital sex at the time – the play is littered with comic asides and wonderful play-on-words language that the actors seem to enjoy as much as the audience.

In fact, as the play progresses, I begin to understand just how iconic Juno and the Paycock really is. Founder of the Lyric Theatre, Mary O’Malley was so enamoured with the play that she ran it almost every year during her time in charge of the theatre. Throughout, audience members mouth or openly voice iconic lines in the play along with the actors.

Johnny‘Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis,’ repeats Captain Jack. ‘What is the moon, what is the stars?’ he drunkenly ponders, a line which perhaps gets the biggest response from the audience. And my personal favourite, ‘Isn't all religions curious? If they weren't you wouldn't get anyone to believe in them’.

O’Casey’s taut, inventive writing cannot be faulted. The same can be said for the acting in this production. With his slouching posture and ‘darlin’’ phrases, Joe Hanley keeps the Opera House amused as the scheming Joxer. 

Bríd Ni Neachtain brings an authority and self-confidence to the role of Juno, and Garrett Keogh is unflinchingly believable as the work shy Captain Jack – whether playing for laughs or portraying his character’s descent into loneliness.

It’s Diarmuid Noyes as Johnny who catches the eye, however. Off stage for much of the time, he nevertheless commands attention as the paranoid Johnny. And when his fate is finally revealed, the audience finally stop sniggering at scenes and lines that are far from funny and give the actors the deference they deserve. 

If this ARTC sell-out run at the Opera House is anything to go by, it's clear that the demand for classic Irish theatre is as strong as ever. Let's hope that other companies look to the stars in the months to come. 

Lee Henry