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Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With Ghosts

There are some shows for which it’s best to know as little as possible before entering the theatre. Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts is such a show. Whilst it would be unlikely that anyone would buy a ticket if not already an admirer of the play’s star and author, Byrne’s story – which begins with a gentle meandering through near archetypal tales of mid-century working class Irish family life – gathers power with its surprises.

Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With GhostsAs performer, Byrne narrates and enacts – building a world with his words that is vivid, distinct and largely affectionate. In the great tradition of the Irish barroom yarn, we are treated to observations from the perspective of a young boy: terrifying nuns who offer (now comically) draconian descriptions of damnation with a devil and a toasting fork; enormous families in which a mother’s only rest is the trip to the maternity hospital; the awe of the Guinness factory’s bicentennial celebrations. With flawless physicality, Byrne enacts a complete cast of his hometown’s quirky characters – their quiddity conveyed with masterful mimicry of their gaits, mannerisms or voices. Despite a climate of deprivation, shame and rigidity, he tells gentle childhood stories of the love of his mother and grandmother – replete with forgiveness, corn flakes and cinema. And so, having arrived at this production entirely uninitiated in the life story of Mr Gabriel Byrne, I felt the full force of its drama when the craic was no longer the point.

Drawing on meetings with the likes of Richard Burton and the words of Dylan Thomas, Byrne’s storytelling is full of eloquent prose and big ideas but never departs into the maudlin, self-pitying or pretentious. I thought of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (Byrne delivered a laurelled Broadway performance of the same play seven years ago). But instead of the patriarch, James Tyrone, whom he last enacted, I was briefly reminded of the younger Jamie Tyrone – the character given most of the play’s poetry, confessions, laments and recriminations. However, unlike the similarly brilliant and magnetic Jamie Tyrone, Byrne survives to offer hope amongst the lyricism.

Whilst Walking with Ghosts is laugh-out-loud hilarious in parts – especially in the second act – Byrne does not shy away from the naked truths of his experiences. He finds a balance in tone that does something rather remarkable: the brutal and awful are not tempered by a brittle wit but, rather, the devasting and comic manage to co-exist authentically. And through this very human duality, we as the audience go on both a dramatic and emotional journey but find a kind of peace for it.

Lonny Price’s direction reveals a strong instinct for pacing that pays off whilst Sinead McKenna’s set and lighting design aid a sense of theatrical completeness. It is, however, the remarkable talents and honesty of Gabriel Byrne that provide us with a story so personal and affecting but also, fundamentally, universal. Emotionally engaging and entertaining, Walking with Ghosts is so much more than an autobiography; it is a window into the human condition.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Gabriel Byrne on stage. In his own words.

Adapted from Gabriel Byrne’s best-selling memoir of the same name and directed by Emmy award-winning director Lonny Price.

As a young boy growing up on the outskirts of Dublin, Gabriel Byrne sought refuge in a world of imagination among the fields and hills near his home, at the edge of a rapidly encroaching city. Moving between sensual recollection of childhood in a now almost vanished Ireland and a commentary on stardom in Hollywood and on Broadway, he reflects on a life’s journey.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Walking with Ghosts is a lyrical homage to the people and landscapes that ultimately shape our destinies.

Directed by three-time Emmy award-winning director Lonny Price, the creative team also includes Sinéad McKenna (set and lighting designer); Joan O’Clery (costume designer) and Sinéad Diskin (sound designer and composer).

Walking with Ghosts
Apollo Theatre

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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