Caught between confusion and delight, Fionola Meredith enjoys the blend of political incorrectness and slapstick
There is a full second of perplexed silence at the end of Puckoon before the Belfast Waterfront audience burst into rapturous applause. That has been the tenor of the whole show: constantly caught between confusion and delight.
The band of multi-talented actors and musicians took the audience on a surreal rampage, loosely based on the Spike Milligan novel. The show's subtitle is 'a simple tale of Irish folk bordering on the ridiculous', but Puckoon, which is dramatised by Vincent Higgins, doesn't just border on the ridiculous. It takes the concept, turns it upside down, ties a silly hat on it and gives it a kick up the arse for good measure.
It's not just silly slapstick though. There's plenty of crackling wit, maudlin philosophising and sheer theatrical anarchy in there too.
The action is set in Ireland, June 1922, and the Ulster Boundary Commission has drawn the new border right through the little town of Puckoon. The graveyard has been sliced in half and the locals left huddled in the corner of a pub, where the drink is now 30% cheaper. A stand-off develops in the graveyard, where deceased inhabitants now require an Irish passport, renewed annually, for the duration of their stay.
The central figure, around whom the craziness revolves, is feckless layabout Dan Milligan (Jack Walsh). He's accompanied by a bewildering range of small-town characters – including Dr Sean Goldstein, Mrs O'Toole, Sergeant MacGillikudie, Blind George, Croucher and Murphy, whose gormless face is 'a replica of the King Edward potatoes he grows'.
All characters are brought to life by the 6-strong cast, who throw hats, shirts, overcoats and even facial expressions (from dopey to cunning) on and off at lightning speed as they shift between personas. There's scant regard for political correctness, especially when it comes to the trainee Chinese policeman (best not ask).
Part of the delirious chaos stems from the fact that this is a play which refuses to behave itself and just be a play. Just as in Milligan's novel, the narrator – known here as The Writer - occasionally abandons his authorial role to engage in discussion with Dan about the state of his legs, which Dan claims haven't been written very well. He'd be happier with a better-scripted pair. This is carried off with such great humour that it doesn't come across as self-consciously knowing or clever-clever.
What really adds another dimension to Puckoon, though, is the music. Again showing enormous versatility, the actors also turn out to be dab hands at the ukelele, flute, tin whistle, accordion, harmonica and drums – sometimes simultaneously.
At the piano, Paul Boyd (aka The Writer), in an outsized, floppy wine-coloured bow-tie, holds it all together – just about. He struggles manfully to keep the play afloat, at one point sighing, 'you don't get this in the Lighthouse Family'. An observation which gets a roar of laughter from the audience.
Somewhere towards the end, Dan Milligan asks, 'what's this play all about anyway, with all these people coming and going?' There is no answer to that question, but you're laughing so much that you don't care.
Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide to find out where to see Puckoon.