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 Conversations on a Homecoming and A Whistle in the Dark - and scroll down for a review of the entire cycle.

CONVERSATIONS ON A HOMECOMING

A WHISTLE IN THE DARK

FAMINE

The final piece in the DruidMurphy cycle is easily the darkest - in Famine, Tom Murphy tackles the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th Century, and the tragic consequences it had on individual lives as well as the country as a whole.

Famine uses the Connor family as a way to delve into it from a personal perspective - we see how they suffer through the famine, including the infamous evictions, resettlement and eventual starvation, as well as being offered greater insights into the wider disaster. Unsurprisingly (if you know your history), the resulting story is incredibly tragic.

This play shows Murphy at his most Brechtian - he is clearly making a greater socio-political point beyond the story of John Connor, who is trying to keep his family together throughout but whose suffering is less personally driven. There is an argument in him between civic duty and familial responsibility, but little is made of that in this production - it's clearly much more about the wider implications of the way the crisis was handled. In lesser hands this could have been overbearing, but Garry Hynes (again) finds an easy middle ground, with plenty of strong, powerful images and an overarching story of neglect that gives the simple family story more impact - another excellent job.

There are also strong overtones of Beckett here - a spartan stage, dominated by a mound of earth, with most of the second half dominated by scenes of characters slowly starving while little happens. The opening, while still played on an unnatural set, has more narrative flow, and allows time to introduce the O'Learys, Malachy (Garrett Lombard) and Mickeleen (Aaron Monaghan), who push for a more violent solution to the conflict while the landlords and priests flail with their civic responsibilities. If there's a criticism of the script here, it feels like a lot of characters are introduced who might be able to help, but who disappear later - probably not unlike the real situation, but it makes it all the more depressing when characters offer solutions and then never return to enact them.

However, the lion's share of stage time is given to the Connors - Brian Doherty gives an impassioned performance as John, as does Marie Mullen as Sinead, but their own conflicts are lost in the wall of despair. Beth Cooke and Gavin Drea add a vague vein of hope as young lovers Maeve and Liam, and it is their moments together that bind the more general approach and the personal story of loss - great performances from both.

It's undeniable that Famine is intensely tragic - we see most of the cast die, and it's this unrepenting sadness that makes it quite hard to watch. However, it's power and strength in performance, direction and production make sure that this is not a piece (nor a topic) that can or should be ignored - an outstanding end to an incredible day.

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: Famine, at Hampstead TheatreChris Hislop reviews Famine (part of DruidMurphy) at the Hampstead Theatre.5