There’s a scene in Ballyturk when the characters share tea and biscuits. Of course this being Enda Walsh, that banal Irish charade has been reimagined as an absurdly cartoonish ritual in which the biscuits are piled Jenga-like. Pull the wrong one and it all comes tumbling down.
It’s an unfortunately fitting metaphor for the Abbey Theatre’s renewal of Walsh’s 2014 work. Cillian Murphy, it turns out, is the missing, load-bearing, biscuit.
Absent his manic, sinew-busting physicality (no one has worn a hurling helmet with more conviction since Niall McCarthy in the 2004 All-Ireland final), simply not matched by Tadhg Murphy in the role of 1, the play has lost its spark.
Mikel Murfi reprises his part as 2, and is, as ever, excellent; but he achieved such a symbiotic display with Cillian Murphy that a whole dimension to his performance has been lost.
The play is essentially a piece of meta-Walsh, a comment on his own writing practice, one that cannibalises his earlier themes, characters and motifs. At times, it’s a riot. But the strongest sense of the piece now, three years on, is as a staging post: the work of a writer coming to the end of one approach, and about to begin another. The more achieved, dynamic works Walsh has produced since then, Arlington and The Last Hotel among them, only underline this.
The plot twist in Ballyturk, which ruptures the hermetic world of 1 and 2 and their exuberant storytelling, comes via a deus-ex-machina moment when another character (named 3, of course) enters, like Death come, or Godot. Olwen Fouere has succeeded Stephen Rea in this role. But where Rea was sardonic and innately funny, Fouere plays it straight and humourless. Again, it’s simply not as effective this time round.