The Weir (Richmond Theatre)

The Weir (Richmond Theatre, until March 3rd 2018)

Four men drinking in a rural pub, entertaining a female newcomer with ghost stories – it might sound like the ideal Irish drama through that description alone. But in the hands of Conor McPherson the simple setting becomes a haunting masterpiece exploring loneliness, loss and longing.

More chilling than the sub-zero temperatures outside, this revival of the writer’s 1997 offering, which many regard as one of the finest plays of the 20th Century, is a touring gem. It is never entirely comfortable to watch, reaching to the depths of our fears as it suggests the essence of loneliness is the scariest horror story of all.

This co-production by English Touring Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre is directed by Adele Thomas with shadowy menace yet without losing the warmth of what bonds individuals and communities together. McPherson is a master storyteller, so his use and development of traditional folk stories here (and the traditions that lie behind their retelling) is a work of unqualified genius.

The intimate setting of the pub in one of Ireland’s most sparsely populated areas, with the wind whistling eerily outside, becomes a crucible for the five characters in the play to share fears and friendship and it also comes across as a place of safety and security. Madeline Girling’s cosy set is a haven from the storm outside yet not without its own sinister aspects, while Lee Curran’s imaginative lighting and Richard Hammarton’s music and sound are characters in their own right, adding suspense, melancholy and sharp focus.

Fairy tales and the supernatural edge into the bar-room banter as the regulars are joined by a brash out of towner and a new arrival with secrets of her own.  There is an undercurrent of Irish folklore seeping through the conversations, which eventually give way to deeper and more real nightmares that are not so easily explained away. It is clear that the stories reveal more about their narrators than anything else. It is as though the audience is eavesdropping on personal stories that need to be told and understood and in a way everyone is invited to search for meaning in the unknown beyond.

Sean Murray as garage owner Jack gives emotional backbone to the piece and it is fitting that his is the character allowed to offer a more fantastical tale alongside one more personal and equally haunting. His positive outlook, tempered with a distrust of the unknown, is contrasted by John O’Dowd’s more downbeat Jim and Sam O’Mahony’s unambitious and laidback young landlord.

The arrival of local entrepreneur Finbar (Louis Dempsey as the outwardly confident businessman who may not have escaped his roots as much as he might have liked) and Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke holding her own in the male-dominated piece, bedevilled by a memory which has its own supernatural twist) changes the dynamics but never once does the play lose its subtlety or otherworldliness in the face of dire reality.

It is an unsettling play that is not without hope, helped by well-crafted and nuanced performances that are never less than believable, each actor weaving magic and crafting the excellent production tapestry between them.

Despite being performed on larger stages in this tour (the play premiered at the Royal Court just over 20 years ago and the pub setting cries out for being watched intimately) the audience never feels distant from the action or the emotion, so drawn in are we by the power of the words, the players and the spine-tingling quality. Both unsettling and affirming this revival proves why The Weir is judged a modern classic.

David Guest

Picture, Marc Brenner