Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub
“It's just people talking,” is how the playwright modestly sums up The Weir.
And so it is. But Conor McPherson's compelling chamber piece has proved popular at home and abroad over its twenty year life, picking up an Olivier for best new play along the way.
The Weir is the name of the bar where all this talking goes on. Conversations in a pub. The barman shares his day with Jack, and later with Jim. The talk turns to Valerie, a Dubliner, a new incomer to this rural village. When she shows up – with Finbar – the banter and the shared memories take on something of the supernatural, and Valerie is moved to share a tale of her own …
That spare summary ignores the richness of the writing, and the finely detailed characters of these storytellers. In Adele Thomas's atmospheric production, the listening carries equal weight with the speaking: each time a ghost story emerges from the casual conversation, the ripe banter, the faces of the listeners, so many still figures in a careful, painterly composition, add weight to the tale. The feel of the pub is largely naturalistic. Madeleine Girling's set accurately recreates this unremarkable, out-of-the-way hostelry, almost entirely devoid of character. But the lighting and the soundscape hint at a different world. And when the pub is deserted once more – the show runs for an hour and three-quarters without a break – the characters and their stories seem to linger for a moment in the stale air of the bar.
The acting is naturalistic too, even in the heightened other-worldly atmospheres of the ghost stories, and those rich Irish accents – dialect coach Hugh O'Shea – take a while to tune in to, and a few words might go missing along the way.
Sean Murray has the best role: Jack, the cantankerous curmudgeon, pouring his bottled Guinness, man-spreading like a leprechaun on his bar stool. His voice coloured by countless Silk Cut, he tells the first tale, “relishing the details”, of a house built across a Fairy Road. And several pints later, in an armchair by the turf stove, he tells the last - ”not a ghostly story” - revealing the roots of his loneliness, a guest at the wedding of the woman he loved and lost. The two other “single fellers” are barman Brendan (Sam O'Mahony), who is denied a story to share, and Jim (a very convincing John O'Dowd), the quiet man with “more going on in there than you might think”, whose gravedigger's tale is perhaps the most spine-chilling.
Except, that is, for the story that Valerie tells. Inspired by listening to these fanciful tales of the supernatural, in which the boundaries between life and death seem blurred, she calmly reveals the all-too-real tragic events that led to her separation and her arrival in the village, seeking peace and quiet in the countryside. A heart-rending performance from Natalie Radmall-Quirke: hesitant, understated, emotionally drained beneath her sociable façade.
Her guide to the village is Louis Dempsey's Finbar, who left for Carrick to make his fortune. Married but playing the field, he stands in stark contrast to the other three, accentuated by his cream-coloured suit and his ready smile.
“We'll all be ghosts soon enough,” says Jack. And we wonder for a moment if these five, taking refuge for a while from the wuthering wind outside, are perhaps just spirits. But the bar is haunted, not by the dead, but by feelings of loss, of loneliness, of lives unfulfilled.
This production, a collaboration between The Mercury and English Touring Theatre, is by no means entirely melancholy – an earthy profanity and infectious Irish charm ensure that our evening spent in the Weir is enjoyably entertaining as well as poignantly moving.
production photograph: Marc Brenner