Outside Mullingar, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

reviewed for The Times, 24 April 2015

Deidre O'Kane as the lovelorn Rosemary in John Patrick Shanley's disappointing Outside Mullingar

Deidre O’Kane as the lovelorn Rosemary in John Patrick Shanley’s disappointing Outside Mullingar


John Patrick Shanley’s last major play won Meryl Streep one of her most-deserved Oscar nominations. Doubt, which Shanley directed when he adapted it from Broadway hit to Miramax movie, gave us four deeply veined characters struggling with the highest of stakes: the threat of child abuse, the fear of false accusation and the last lingering question over the very existence of God himself.

Outside Mullingar, by contrast, comes across as so flat and slight that it’s hard to believe it’s by the same man. The fervour with which audiences kept debating the arguments in Doubt after leaving the show became known on Broadway as “the second act”. Long before the lights went down on Outside Mullingar, however, we had lost the sense that anything was at stake in this rose-tinted vignette of Irish rural life.

The drama focuses around a small strip of land between the Muldoon and Reilly family farms in isolated Killucan. It gave the Reillys right of way on to a front road, but they’ve sold it, for reasons revealed to be both sentimental and banal, to the Muldoons, who refuse to sell it back.

In a Brian Friel play, or JM Synge, this minor squabble might turn out to have heroic, even mythic resonances, but with the clearly signposted romantic comedy between the two heirs all we sense is that we’re waiting for a petty land dispute to wrap itself up neatly. Even at 90 minutes, Sam Yates’s workaday staging feels like a slow wait.

That doesn’t mean Shanley has lost his ear for dialogue. There’s plenty of black Irish humour: a baby who died weeks after birth “shrank – like a sock in the wash”. Deirdre O’Kane has moments of soaringly sympathetic determination as the lovelorn Rosemary, waiting for her man: “you may as well try to stop the calendar from naming the days”.

Yet as Old Reilly vacillates over whether it is best to will the farm to his son or sell it and leave him the cash, it seems as if the cast of Father Ted have been doing drunk-runs of recent episodes of The Archers. If this was a hit in New York, we can only fear for the state of Broadway.