By Joseph Hurley
THE KINGS OF THE KILBURN HIGH ROAD, by Jimmy Murphy. Directed by Jim Nolan. Starring Brendan Conroy, Eamonn Hunt, Sean Lawlor, Noel O’Donovan and Frank O’Sullivan. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., NYC. Through April 21.
Despite the laughter that frequently rocks the Irish Arts Center, where Jimmy Murphy’s brilliantly bitter, perceptively rendered comedy, “The Kings of the Kilburn High Road,” has just opened for a six-week run, a fog of regret and remorse, as undeniable as it is unliftable, hangs suspended over director Jim Nolan’s richly insightful production. It appears almost the moment the lights go up on the shabby Irish social club that serves as the play’s single setting.
Five friends, all of them Irishmen who have come to England from Ireland in the 1970s, have gathered to commiserate and to console one another following the funeral of a sixth comrade, the manner of whose death is the lightly veiled secret the dexterous playwright withholds until the second of the work’s two acts.
If the play’s general scheme calls to mind the plot of the current British film success “Last Orders,” there are, to be sure, certain significant similarities. What “The Kings of the Kilburn High Road,” whose ironic title refers to an area of North London where the immigrant Irish clustered in the 1970s, really is, however, is a kind of Cliff Notes version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” with its assemblage of lonely, frustrated, disappointed men, drowning in drink, despair and self-loathing.
As fine and as truthful as Murphy’s play is, it wouldn’t be the riveting, coruscating experience it provides on the stage without Nolan’s wondrously realized production, imported from London’s Tricycle Theatre, where the Irish Arts Center’s artistic director, Neal Jones, saw the play and determined to bring it to New York.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
Actors, writers and directors are fond of speaking of that idealized, seldom realized theatrical goal, the “ensemble production,” in which every element involved vectors toward a shared peak of achievement.
In its own relatively modest way, what’s happening at the Irish Arts Center is as close to an ensemble production as New York has seen in years, certainly at least since Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” opened on Broadway.
With one exception, Nolan’s cast is the same as it was when the play first opened at the Red Kettle in Waterford, and the “newcomer,” the wistfully appealing Brendan Conroy, fits so seemlessly into the production’s fabric that none could possibly guess that he’s the new boy in Murphy’s little clutch of squabblers, drinkers and saloon singers.
“The Kings of the Kilburn High Road” marks the New York stage debuts of all five cast members, each of whom makes an impact intensified and heightened by lack of numbing familiarity.
The stocky Eamonn Hunt is Maurteen Rodgers, a wife-beating father of six who blames his British mate for his “captivity” in England. The rangy, powerful Sean Lawlor is Jap Kavanagh, the angriest, most “dangerous” of the friends, living with a black woman.
Noel O’Donovan’s Git Miller, perhaps the most truth-telling member of the tribe, and the leader of the songs they sing from time to time, is the only one of the “friends” who was on the scene when their departed colleague died.
Frank O’Sullivan’s Joe Mullen, is the last of the aging boys to arrive and the least emotionally “involved,” is the sole success in the group, a building contractor who hires “Jocks” over “Paddies” because he considers the Scotsmen more reliable than his own countrymen.
Brendan Conroy’s gentle, thoughtful Shay Mulligan is the most passive, most contemplative and least self-hating of the friends, a man who sits silently and listens with brilliance while emotional fires rage around him.
These five sterling actors, under the expert guidance of Nolan, himself one of the Red Kettle’s founders, and author of a number of plays including “Moonshine” and “The Salvage Shop,” seem so comfortable together that it’s entirely easy to believe they’ve been living and aging together for a quarter of a century.
Except for the callously detached Mullen, these are men truly and irrevocable without a country, having failed to put down a viable root in England, while Ireland changed, seemingly entirely, in their long absence.
One of them speaks of his Irish inheritance as “15 acres of prime bog,” while another, urging his friend to make good on his threat to go back to his original home, comments that “the Paki travel guy will be only too happy to take your money.”
Mourning their dead friend, Jackie Flavin, whose coffin had to be kept closed, and whose remains were shipped back to Ireland, negotiating a journey home none of the quintet of survivors seems able to make, the “pals” work their way through three or four fifths of “Jimmy,” aka Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, and flail the skin off of each other.
“The Kings of the Kilburn High Road” is set in some vague present time, but it feels as though it were happening a couple of decades ago, despite references to Bill Clinton and to the pope’s visit to Ireland, not to mention the poster on the wall of Ben Hennessy’s spot-on set advertising an appearance by Conor McKay, “The singing brickie.”
If an aura of some earlier time hangs over Murphy’s resonant, moving play, it’s only fitting since Shay and Maurteen and Jap and Git are living in a sort of timeless past, while even the prosperous Joe doesn’t seem all that much more securely grounded.
The dart board goes unused while these disappointed men play cruelly funny games of their own, just as the club’s juke box remains a silent sentinel to the sad, sweet songs of hope and despair these sorrowing old Irishmen, individuals who, as Jap puts it at one point, might have been “kings of the Kilburn High Road,” have been singing for an eternity.
They will, all too soon, as one of them comments ruefully, be “left out to graze.”
Murphy’s vibrant play, as directed by Nolan, is a most welcome addition to New York’s theatrical scene. So, especially, are the five splendid actors who populate it so wondrously.
— Joseph Hurley