★★★★ Quietly affecting
Royal Lyceum Theatre: Tue 19 Jan-Sat 7 Feb 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson
Superbly judged performances and a clever, organic approach to staging make for an effectively spooky time in the Lyceum’s production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir.
In Brendan’s unremarkable Irish country pub, garage owner Jack and handyman Jim witness the arrival of Valerie, a sophisticated newcomer from Dublin, and her escort, local-boy-made-relatively-good Finbar, who is suspected of having plans that go beyond giving her a tour of the area.
A series of supernatural stories are told by these characters that grow steadily darker and more mysterious as the wind and rain howl outside.
McPherson’s play has rapidly taken on the status of a modern classic since its debut at the end of the last century. While it may have been overpraised on occasion, there is no doubting the quality of the dialogue.
What appears to be a simple premise, furthermore, is used in a deceptive way. Thus, characters that appear at first to be types become much more complex and rewarding.
There is something primal and primeval about the ghostly tales that chime with deep human fears about loneliness, the unknown and death. Allusions to folklore hint at ideas about the barriers to other worlds not being as strong or as far away as they might be – and that those worlds could bleed into our mundane reality.
This is beautifully echoed by Francis O’Connor’s effective set, that seems to combine the inside and the outside at once, with a realistic pub interior framed by the rain-lashed countryside.
It would be all too easy to overegg the pudding here, by layering on the cod Irish elements and ladling on ‘ghostly’ atmosphere, ending up with something akin to Private Frazer’s stories in Dad’s Army.
Amanda Gaughan’s direction, however, makes a deliberate and successful choice to restrict any hints of Spooky 101 or jolly Celtic fakery, by toning down the supernatural elements at first. Michael John McCarthy’s restrained sound and music are representative of this. It is only when the outside elements of the set have disappeared from view, thanks to Simon Wilkinson’s pitch-perfect lighting, that the more quotidian elements disappear and the atmosphere changes.
All of the groundwork laid by the cast in making their characters believable, in nailing the all too realistic, empty ‘banter’ between men who have known each other too long, pays off in a series of excellent performances.
Gary Lydon’s garage-owner Jack is transformed from a fidgety curmudgeon into a huge, shambling painful mass as he recalls losing his great love. Brian Gleeson’s bar owner Brendan remains comparatively inscrutable, but hints at an almost desperate lack of fulfilment.
Frank McCusker presents Finbar as a man driven by a huge desire for validation, unable to convince even himself that his decisions have been correct. Jim is a seemingly simple man who is suspected of having hidden depths by others, in a way that says more about them than it does about him. Well-meaning but hugely tactless, and burdened by caring for a mother who seems to have been on her last legs for decades, he is the character that could be most stereotypical but is played by Darragh Kelly with finesse.
And then there is Valerie, the recent arrival who has her own story to tell. Played by Lucianne McEvoy with steely self-assurance yet trembling vulnerability, the careful building up of atmosphere means that the nervous laughter vanishes completely as she tells her own chilling tale.
Whether the production succeeds on bringing everyone back to earth depends partly on your tolerance for superstition, but there is a definite feeling that the last half-hour or so is an anticlimax here. Much of that painstakingly created atmosphere is simply dissipated, despite the efforts of Lydon in Jack’s big emotional outburst.
Nevertheless, the craft of all concerned makes for a highly rewarding evening – thought-provoking, absorbing and impeccably acted.
Running time 1 hour 40 mins, no interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Tuesday 19 January to Saturday 7 February 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm; Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
Tickets from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-weir