Three Tom Murphy plays over nigh-on 9 hours may not sound like everyone's cup of tea, but there's still every reason to see Druid's latest mini-season - each individual piece is a remarkable production, but all together they paint a haunting and evocative picture of recent Irish history that will leave you breathless.

To give Druid the credit they deserve, I've reviewed each production individually - follow the links if you want reviews of A Whistle in the Dark and Famine - and scroll down for a review of the entire cycle.

CONVERSATIONS ON A HOMECOMING

A WHISTLE IN THE DARK

FAMINE

The first play of Druid's cycle is the most recent and the gentlest - a quiet evening in the pub that develops into a conversational insight into traditional values running counter to progress. On its own, I can imagine Conversations would sit a little limply, but the production here is still strong and intriguing, if less gritty than the ones that follow.

Michael returns home to a village in Count Galway after moving away to become an actor in America, and joins his old friends Tom and Junior at their old friend JJ's pub. What starts off as a friendly occasion becomes much more personal as more is drunk and tongues are loosened, and it becomes clear that there is more to Michael's return - but how will his old friends feel about his plans?

Where the rest of the DruidMurphy cycle is really quite aggressive, Conversations is a much more relaxed affair - and, through conversation, a more relatable insight into some of the more prevalent themes that run through the day. The basic conflict is of tradition - the rebellious JJ inspired the boys to think liberally when they were younger, but that idealism has taken very different routes in each of them: whilst Marty Rea's Michael wants to revolutionise sleepy Galway with more modern ways of thinking, Garrett Lombard's Tom has allowed those lessons to fester into bitterness, as the staunch tradition around him has burst any ambitions he might have once had - culminating in Tom threatening Micheal with what will happen if he rocks the boat. 

The tension between tradition and progress is also tied into Irish Americanism (which became extremely prevalent with JFK; the first 'Irish' American president), exemplified here by Aaron Monaghan's Liam, with his Americanisms and distinctly cowboy-ish get-up. However, this kind of progress is accepted - Liam's buying and reselling of property gives him a lot of local power, and the progress he represents is seen as far more acceptable than Michael's anti-religious angle - the complexity of such underlying tensions could easily get tangled with a lesser writer at the helm, but Murphy manages to keep all strands intact by using the simple lads-down-the-pub setting to allow such conversation to spill forth.

However, Murphy does have trouble with his female characters - the pleasant Anne (a quiet Beth Cooke) has little to do except smile, and Eileen Walsh's Peggy has few moments to be more than a small-town stereotype (even at times bringing to mind Mrs Doyle, the maid from Father Ted, which isn't exactly fitting) - the same with Marie Mullen's Missus. It is Marty Rea and Garrett Lombard who shine as Michael and Tom, with Lombard playing the bitter cynic with crushed ambitions with painful exactitude, while Rory Nolan's Junior is simply pleasant and Aaron Monaghan's Liam straddles comic relief and the epitome of the main argument well - it's almost as if his presence and mannerisms instigate the central conflict.

Garry Hynes direction is, as with the rest of the cycle, tight and basically faultless - the conversations unravel organically, just as the drinking loosens tongues at just the right moments, which suits the natural script and set. A lovely production and a complicated think-piece - just the right thing to open a day of theatre!

DRUIDMURPHY CYCLE

While each of these productions of Murphy's plays are really rather excellent, it's seeing them all together that makes what Druid have achieved here so inspirational and enjoyable. Each piece holds a nugget of recent Irish history, and the reverse chronological order means that each issue can be traced back further - it's very hard not to get a grim sense of causality and the interlinkining of events, even when this isn't a specific trilogy: the pieces connect on a more fundamental level, although whether that's something more intrisic to Ireland itself, or just Murphy, is debatable. Regardless, the effect is powerful and eerie.

This is also partially down to seeing the same performers take on roles in each production - you can't quite shake the feeling that these could be ancestors or timeless evocations of some sense of Irishness. For example, Garrett Lombard's Tom from Conversations seethes with repressed rage, while that rage is all the more immediate as the loutish Hugo in Whistleand the revolutionary Malachy in Famine - it's like he's fit to burst with discontent at every moment, and maybe that discontent all comes from the same place. A similar effect can be seen in Aaron Monaghan's performances: Liam (Conversations), Harry (Whistle) and Mickeleen (Famine) are all instigators - often sly and certainly attempting to control the situation, and rarely fully likeable - just as Marty Rea's Michaels (Conversations and Whistle) and Fr Horan (Famine) are trying to bring about positive change, but struggle against their ineffectiveness - often trying approaches counter to the traditional masculinity expected of them.

It's also easier, when seeing all three, to get a very real view of Tom Murphy's writing - his often very personal stories seem to balance on the border where family, nationality and morality come to a point, where tradition and conservatism are weighed up against striving forward for a better future, but neither approach brings complete results. Often dark, quite depressing, but with a glimmer of joy throughout - that life is to be enjoyed despite the knocks and pains that we will inevitably face. Although he can't really write for female characters, and it's telling that there are only 5 female characters throughout the day, most of which have little impact on the stories.

Seeing all three shows together also brings to a head quite how epic this undertaking is for Druid. With a total cast of 17, most of which perform in two (if not all three) of the productions, it's a gruelling day for all involved. But the result is just as epic as the effort - an incisive look at a neglected playwright and three evocative, powerful productions that form an incredible arc. The standing ovation at the end of the day was more than deserved; I can unequivocally say that this is one of the best shows I've ever seen.

DruidMurphy: Conversations on a Homecoming, at Hampstead TheatreChris Hislop reviews Conversations on a Homecoming (part of DruidMurphy) at the Hampstead Theatre.5