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Theatre review: The Flags, Royal Court

Phil Key on a provocative Irish drama starring Drew Schofield. But is it a day at the beach?

Published on June 18th 2009.

Theatre review: The Flags, Royal Court

It opens on a beach with a view of a naked male backside and the chap in question wiping it with a piece of paper, then throwing it to one side.

There were some gasps, a few nervous chuckles and several surprised expressions in the audience.

The Flags, by Irish writer Bridget O'Connor, is a comedy that goes out of its way to provoke such reactions, often very dark, sometimes witty, occasionally offensive and just a little bizarre.

The set up is the attempt by two inept lifeguards on the second worst beach in Ireland to better themselves by applying for a move to a prestigious beach.

The one they are on has few visitors and nasty things floating in on the tide like a dead dog or, on a couple of occasions, a dead body; problems they deal with by burying the corpses in the sand.

The pair are, of course, just a little unusual.

There is JJ, who makes unlikely claims about having been a lifeguard on a Californian beach for five years, and Howie who is just a little bit simple and who makes much of the fact that he has been orphaned.

Two other characters make occasional appearances: their boss, Brendan, who has the power to make their new life possible, and a girl, Ursula, who is collecting rocks and carries a wedding dress in her backpack.

The bulk of the comedy, however, relies on the cross chat between JJ and Howie, Howie the stronger of the two and given to rants against his friend and colleague.

Happily, these are played by two excellent actors, Liverpool's own Andrew Schofield as JJ and Eamonn Owens as Howie, a role he played in the original production at Manchester's Royal Exchange.

The Court has a coup in attracting the Exchange's artistic director, Greg Hersov, to direct this new production designed by the Exchange's regular designer, Laurie Dennett.

The set looks impressive on the Royal Court stage although the amount of sand used did cause problems. The weight of it put such a strain on the stage that the opening had to be delayed for several days while structural work was carried out.

Was it worth it? Just about.

The Flags is a curious mixture of comedy, tragedy and sheer cheek. It requires a huge suspension of belief to cope with a couple of the twists, and the characters are generally more theatrical than real.

Schofield's JJ is an unlikely lifeguard: he smokes cigarettes furiously and makes puny attempts at weight lifting - and saving lives for that matter (he requires a book when an emergency strikes). But thanks to the actor's comic skills he is never less than watchable and often very funny. His delivery has polished timing and his body movements are quite brilliant.

The Howie of Eamonn Owens is rather silly, like a Stan Laurel to Schofield's slim-line Oliver Hardy. Howie gives him plenty of stage presence and has his own line in humour. He generally irritates JJ and is, indeed, a rather irritating, if loveable, character.

More down-to earth is the boss man, Brendan, played by Kieran Cunningham (another member of the original cast) whose attempt to unload his unmarried sister onto JJ provides some fun, with Cunningham both pompous and pathetic.

The mysterious Ursula (Jessica Regan) is just that: mysterious. She arrives in a full-length coat collecting pebbles and intrigues the simple Howie. It is her story, however, that provides the big twist.

This is a comedy of character rather than jokes which is just as well as some gags are decidedly bleak (there is a doubtful joke about Parkinson's Disease, for example). There is also a lot of "fecking" in the script and a couple of uses of the C-word.

Bridget O'Connor manages, however, to entertain. The constant flow of dialogue is well done, the storyline is never forgotten and her characters, odd and larger than life as they may be, contain just enough reality to keep matters on an even keel.

Brendan the boss, checking up on the "skills" of the lifeguards, provides a good contrast to the two daft and ultimately sad principals, revealing that the better beach boasts "tits and arse as far as the eye can see" while Ursula adds a teasing element to the plot.

Hersov directs in an unfussy manner leaving the performers to control the pace of the play.

The Flags may not have that in-your-face Scouse humour of some of the shows staged at this venue. It does veer towards Irish whimsy at times despite the black humour and there is an easy-going feel to some of the action.

It boasts a rough charm, however, that carries it through, from the bare-faced cheeks opening scene to thoughtful conclusion.


*The Flags, Royal Court, Roe Street Liverpool, runs until Saturday 27 June. Call 0870 787 1866.

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17 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Drew PeacockJune 10th 2009.

Drew is an excellent name and it doesn't get you laughed at though in America it is given to GIRLS!

AnonymousJune 10th 2009.

Synchronicity Dig. There's a lot of it about at the moment.

harriJune 10th 2009.

every generation an actor with limitless talent appears to enthrall and bewitch audiences. Drew is this very man but why has he been so badly treated by the acting world?He would be ideally cast as Scully grown up and struggling to cope with a world in chaos.Bleasdales powers may have waned but there are plenty of other politically aware writers to do justice to Drews technical brilliance and visceral understanding of modern British life.Give him a chance BBC......

Professor Fox ChucklebuttyJune 10th 2009.

What Dig, he was offered a series and with drew? I think we could be the new Scully and Mulder in an updated Scouse Files. Hve you ever been abducted by aliens? You strike me as the type they go for. Check if your underpants are on back to front when you wake up. It's a sure sign.

DigJune 10th 2009.

Coincidence. Yesterday I commented on meeting Alan Bleasdale, today a review of Scully on stage!

Coachman's LobscouseJune 10th 2009.

It's happening again! The answer is down there...

AnonymousJune 10th 2009.

As a massive fan of Drew's then he is brilliant but the same can't be said for the rest of the show as I thought that it was just rubbish. This isn't up to the usual standard of production I expect from the Royal Court. Very disappointed but it's good to see Drew back on stage.

LampwickJune 10th 2009.

....but I like drew.

Professor FFle ChucklebuttyJune 10th 2009.

when did this happen then? When did Mr Andrew Shorefield become Drew Shorefield. if he wants to shorten his name it should be Andy if he wants the action stuff or Andre if he wants to do any of that Chard Curtis, Four Swellings and a Hernia rubbish or Knotty Hill. I have nothing against this chap although he once virtually had something against my friend Mrs Hewitt. She went to see him in some panto or something at the Playhouse Upstairs and the next thing you know he is stark naked inches from her face showing her everything he had downstairs. the poor woman almost had a stroke. Fortunately Mr Clack from the local keycutters and heel bar, who was in the next seat, took out his cobbling pinchers causing "Drew" to move away. Mrs Hewitt said she didn't like the play and was amazed he had such a large part. It was years before she went to the theatre again after the shock, in fact it wan't until i took her to see Equus with young Niel Radcliffs from the Harry Worth films. I thought it was based on Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Mrs H said it was more Anna Sewage. Anyway we have stopped taking her to the theatre now, wherever she ges it's always a cock-up

AnonymousJune 10th 2009.

I love Drew in the show, he is so talented and I think it's a shame his talent isn't recognised more outside Liverpool.I've been a fan of Drew's since Be Bop A Lula at the Playhouse in 1988 and think he is one gorgeous bloke.

MooeyJune 10th 2009.

Andrew Schofield is typecast as a scouser which is unfortunate when scouseness is equated with stupidity and criminality by the British media . If he were a typecast as a cocker-nee barsteward he'd have no problems finding work in national telly, and if things were bad he could always rely on getting a job in the publicly-funded old cockney's home DeadendersAlso the BBC seems to have an obligation to invent careers for the potato-faced no-talents who leave Deadenders at OUR expense!

DigJune 10th 2009.

A modern day series of Scully with Drew. That is a wonderful thought.

DigJune 10th 2009.

Now you mention it Prof I think I have been abducted recently. I woke up in some woods disorientated, in my underpants, with no idea how I got there and with a very bad headache. It seems to happen regularly on weekends. Must be when the aliens have a day off from their normal jobs on their home planet. What was this article originally about again? Was it the Star Trek movie review?

DigJune 10th 2009.

There seems to be synchronicity with every breathe you take.

weavers girlJune 10th 2009.

Scully bought my wheelsJune 10th 2009.

Ooh you are awful!

Drew for meJune 10th 2009.

why hasnt this wonderful scouse actor ever made it in hollywood? he is the equal of jonny depp and is probably the most handsome actor of his generation. it is a mystery.

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