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How do you get an audience shivering in their seats when it’s this light outside? It’s a challenge that the Donmar Warehouse’s Josie Rourke and a superb cast of five have taken on in their version of Conor McPherson’s masterful The Weir, first performed over 15 years ago. Constricted to an archetypal Irish country pub and running shorter than most plays at just an hour and three quarters (in this case with no interval), this production may not seem up to much. However, this is a show that quietly builds to a punchy conclusion, which is served up to us perfectly here by a quintet at the top of their game.
Along the way, we’re treated to some chuckle-inducing humour from this set of lonely, aging men. In fact, it’s a play of two distinct halves, and if the first 45 minutes or so seem a little slow, this allows you to get to know the characters, to make yourself at home before the welcome mat is pulled out from under your feet. With the arrival of Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie, reluctantly accompanying local ladies’ man Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), the cosy companionship enjoyed by Jack, Jim and barman Brendan is disrupted as the four men attempt to impress the newcomer with a series of supernatural stories.
The narrative here moves from gentle comedy to chilling but equally low-key horror, and then takes a jerking sidestep towards heart-wrenching emotion when Valerie recounts her own personal experiences with the ghosts that will never stop haunting her. For the cast to effortlessly handle these transitions, and then to encompass a further, beautiful story from Brian Cox’s Jack, is little short of miraculous. But to top this performance off, there lies a metanarrative, reflecting the lingering power of stories that dredge up secret fears, which we thought we’d buried deep.
In an impressive cast, Brian Cox’s brusque yet troubled portrayal of Jack is noteworthy for being both exuberant and introspective. He charges across the stage, moving more than any of the other actors, but his moments of stillness are a perfect lesson in captivating an audience. Though he has perhaps the most to do of all the cast, he never lets the standard drop and creates a believably damaged yet lovable man from a curmudgeonly old codger with a hidden heart. Just as stunning is Kirwan’s subtle performance as the sole lady of the group, an outsider who has moved to the country for reasons that only become clear towards the very end of the play but which can be guessed at almost from her first appearance. This is testament to Kirwan’s expressive, honest acting; when her moment comes to deliver a lengthy, heavy-going monologue, she does so with aplomb and a fantastic depth of feeling.
We are drawn, too, to Ardal O’Hanlon (best known for popular sitcom Father Ted), who brings a delightful warmth to the naïve, bewildered Jim, and to Peter McDonald as dependable yet slightly awkward Brendan, the pub’s proprietor and provider of the fuel for these tales of terror. Poor Risteárd Cooper does his best, saddled with the least likeable of the characters, and it would be unfair to label him as the weak link when in fact his blustering self-confidence presents a neat counterpoint to the regrets and doubts of those around him.
It is admirable that, despite what must have been a sore temptation to go the route of the classic ghost story, both McPherson and director Josie Rourke allow profound emotion to override fear. The stories are all the more chilling for this, and it’s difficult to stave off a shiver or two when the sensation of a dark winter’s night in the Irish countryside is conjured up so effectively. McPherson’s simplistic yet evocative writing is aided here by a set for which designer Tom Scutt should be applauded; the stage looks so much like an Irish pub that it’s easy to forget where you are and fully immerse yourself in the world of The Weir.
Congratulations to all involved, then, for a show that really whets the appetite for the Donmar’s next dose of Conor McPherson. We don’t have too long to wait, thankfully, as his new play The Night Alive receives its debut at the Warehouse from the 13th of June. Neither should be missed.