A Skull In Connemara proves that Pat Shortt might be Ireland's most underrated actor right now 4 years ago

A Skull In Connemara proves that Pat Shortt might be Ireland's most underrated actor right now

A comedy, yes, but not as you know it...

When you hear Pat Shortt, your first thoughts are probably the same ones everyone else has.

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D'Unbelievables. Killinaskully. The "I Shot JR" guy from Father Ted.

It is a fair response to the man who has essentially made his career from slightly off-kilter comedy, and these characters often overshadow the immensely good work he put in for the likes of the Cannes award-winning film Garage, or his small parts in the likes of The Guard and Calvary.

A Skull In Connemara sees Shortt combining those two sides of abilities - the weird comedy and the seldom tapped dramatic depths - as Mick Dowd, a gravedigger who is hired by the local church to exhume the bodies of an overcrowded, small-town cemetery.

Local whispers and the ever-present Irish cottage industry of potentially harmful gossip go into overdrive when it comes time for Mick to dig up his dead wife - who died as a result of a car crash caused by Mick's drunk driving, but the majority of the locals believe he killed her well before they got into the car.

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That is the set-up for this take on Martin McDonagh's play (he of In Bruges and Three Billboards fame), and it is a stark, darkly funny tale, constantly striking a balance between obvious comedy and "Oh, should we be laughing at this?" sorta-comedy, and Shortt once again proves himself more than capable of going beyond the need to be funny.

Clip via Brendan Foreman Design

Capable of shading the performance with so many layers that you don't notice he's gone from jovial to creepily intimidating without warning, but when he does imbue the character's potentially dangerous characteristics, the stage crackles with intensity.

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Shortt is just one part of the minimalist four-hander, surrounded by Maria McDermottroe as Maryjohnny Rafferty, a Poitín swilling gossip-monger, and her two grandkids, Tom Hanlon (played by Patrick Ryan), a local Garda with a longing to solve one of his many long unsolved murder cases, and Mairtin Hanlon (Jarlath Tivnan), a late-teens trouble-maker who always seems to know exactly what to say to Mick to get him riled up.

It is with the performances of the supporting casts that the same, ever-present niggly problems with a McDonagh script arise - overly flowery language, plot contrivances, and too-aware-for-its-own-good dialogue delivery - but nobody puts a foot wrong in their roles, except for the fact that none of them can escape the shadow of Shortt's eclipsing presence.

The stage direction appears simple enough for the most part, just the interior of Mick's barren living room, until one of the four prolonged scenes takes place in the graveyard, and the audience is positioned at eye-level to six-feet-under, the actors mostly performing on mounds of earth piled up way above us, with only Mick really down here in the dirt with us.

Many going in to the play may be expecting a laugh riot, and while it is often funny, with some exceptional one-liners, this really is a showcase for Shortt, capable of making us squirm with discomfort with little more than a slight move of his head.

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A Skull In Connemara is running in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin until Saturday 1 September, with tickets available here.