Friday 9 March 2018

Theatre Review: The Weir (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

With his Bob Dylan musical – or “play with songs” – Girl from the North Country successfully transferred from the Old Vic to the West End, now seems a particularly good moment for a revival of Conor McPherson’s breakthrough success, The Weir, which is being presented in a new UK touring production to mark the play’s 20th anniversary.

Not that The Weir can precisely be said to have been neglected since its Royal Court debut in 1997 (in a production which boasted Brendan Coyle and Dermot Crowley among its cast). On the contrary, the play has proved popular at home and abroad in the intervening 20 years, ageing more gracefully than many of the flashier, more modish ‘In Yer Face’ offerings that were its direct contemporaries. Adele Thomas’s elegant new staging, a co-production by Colchester’s Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre, makes a fresh case for the play’s appeal, boasting good performances and sharp attention to atmosphere.

Self-consciously steeped in the oral tradition of Irish culture, The Weir is, overtly, a play about storytelling.  In an isolated rural Irish pub, the young publican Brendan chats with the garrulous Jack, a garage owner. The men are joined later by Jim, a carer for his Mammy, a woman who’s been “fading fast – for years.” The last regular to join the group is the married businessman Finbar, who brings along Valerie, a Dubliner who has rented a house in the area. As the men reminisce and share tall tales, Valerie’s presence prompts some subtle shifts in their dynamic, particularly when she belatedly reveals the reason that she left Dublin.

As a play, The Weir is static and not particularly dramatic. Its interest and momentum comes, instead, from the rhythms of the conversations, as the tales move from supernatural legend and myth to intimate personal revelation, from banter to soul-baring.  McPherson’s dialogue captures those shifts with skill.  Like water down a weir, the spotlight moves fluidly from character to character. At its heart, the play is a portrait of loss and loneliness, a work concerned with the experience of being haunted, yet the themes aren’t loudly stated or over-emphasised; rather they appear to emerge organically from the protagonists’ chat.

Thomas’s production takes its time, offering a slow-burn approach that leads to some lulls yet also gives a pleasant, unforced, natural feeling to the evening. Madeleine Girling’s pub set creates a warm yet appropriately ghostly ambience, enhanced by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban’s lighting, which fleshes out the mood with expressionistic washes, and complemented by Richard Hammarton’s subtle, effective sound design.

In a solid cast, Sam O’Mahony is terrifically likeable as Brendan, presiding over the others stories but never quite revealing his own. Sean Murray is vivid as the self-consciously cantankerous and belligerent Jack, who finally softens up as he recalls a lost love and a stranger’s kindest. John O’Dowd suggests the compromises of Jim’s life with touching understatement, and Louis Dempsey cleverly conveys the cracks in Finbar’s confident façade.  As Valerie, who first shakes things up with a request for a white wine and later with a heart-rending narrative, Natalie Radmall-Quirke is a strong, persuasive presence. The play probably needs a smaller space to truly flourish, but these actors succeed in creating - and sustaining - an involving, intimate mood.

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