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Review of Conor McPherson’s The Weir at Richmond Theatre

Sean Murray (Jack), Sam O'Mahony (Brendan) & Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie) - The Weir - Photography by Marc Brenner
Sean Murray (Jack), Sam O’Mahony (Brendan) & Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie) – The Weir – Photography by Marc Brenner

As it is twenty-one years since this play was first produced at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, you could say it has come of age. In fact, there’s no need to do so since it’s a work which bore the stamp of maturity from the start. Though only in his mid-twenties when he wrote it, the Dublin playwright Conor McPherson was knowingly and successfully channelling the long traditions of his country’s story-telling.

In setting his own narrative in the world of the bar, he summons the shades of Synge, O’Casey, Beehan and many another national forbear. For this is a play in which memory is, through its dynamic influence on the present, is a virtual character, an undead presence in the lives of these five characters drinking at the pub of the play’s title.

When I saw it in its first incarnation, with Brendan Coyle as the publican, I was struck by the confidence with which the writing hands round the opportunities for taking the floor, and the attention paid by the listeners. This comes, surely and correctly, from faith in the sheer power of a yarn well spun, and it is a force properly summoned in director Adele Thomas’s production for the English Touring Theatre.

In fact, these are more testimonies than yarns, and reach deep back into the lives of the mechanic Jack, his assistant Jim, local businessman Finbar and Valerie, a youngish Dublin woman. They do so like hands rummaging into the back of a cupboard for something important. By gender and background, she is the offcomer, stirring the local ingredients afresh as dramatically in its own way as Synge’s famous Playboy. She also turns out to be the one with the best or most chilling story to tell, concerning the loss of a young girl who then seems, with haunting plausibility, to make contact with her from the far side of the grave.

True, she has by this time taken a fair amount of alcohol from Sam O’Mahony’s comically generous barman, Brendan. But she has also been, as it were, drawn into the zone by the self-revealing tales of the others, who manage to endow long monologue with the interactive properties of conversation.

This is not only a tribute to McPherson’s mastery of form and material, but also to Adele Thomas’s plain sense to do as the original did and keep distractions to an ingenious minimum. These can be garrulous people when they choose, but the respect and space which they give to the moment of the speaker invites the rest of us to do likewise. For our own benefit as much as for theirs.

Although this talking area seems far removed and less formal than a place of professional therapy, some kind of healing is in process; and, if you can forgive the intrusion of such alien jargon, sharing is the touchstone. Old as the hills and a fraction of the price, particularly when Brendan is pouring the wine like water.

Watching all this unfold again, I too was taken back. Twenty years ago, I went to Dublin to interview McPherson for The Times. We met in a pub, a newly refurbished one in the Temple Bar area of a Dublin apparently awash with European money. It was late morning, and we were the only two there.

Then, theatrically, the door swung open and in came a character from another time and another place. Technically yes, the same place, but made foreign by the passage of time. He was black-coated, bedraggled, surly, sooty with the past. He looked as if he had stepped from the pages of Brendan Beehan and was about to say something provocative in a loud voice. McPherson seemed to recognise him and cast a wary glance. The man looked about him, saw nothing, not even ghosts, and was gone as quick as he’d come.

The Weir, by contrast, has stayed and is now widely regarded as a modern classic. As a result, this fine production is as much a continuation of its fresh life as it is a revival of its old one. As Valerie, Natalie Radmall-Quirke flowers magnificently from the edge of The Weir’s province to its very heart, with beautifully judged performances from John O’Dowd as Jim, Louis Dempsey as Finbar and Sean Murray as Jack. There are no supporting performances here since they are all at it. The only thing that needs propping up, and gets it in large measures, is the bar.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

A shadowy tale delving into the dark corners of human lives, The Weir is a co-production between English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester.

The full cast including Louis Dempsey (Finbar), Sean Murray (Jack), John O’Dowd (Jim), Sam O’Mahony (Brendan) and Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie) are returning for the tour which forms part of the ETT’s 25th anniversary season.

In a small Irish town, the locals exchange stories round the crackling fire of Brendan’s pub to while away the hours one stormy night. As the beer and whisky flows, the arrival of a young stranger, haunted by a secret from her past, turns the tales of folklore into something more unsettling. One story, however, is more chilling and more real than any of them could have ever imagined.

Tue 27 Feb – Sat 3 Mar 2018
Richmond Theatre

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