THE WEIR
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs at the Duke Of York's Theatre, London WC2
Press night for new cast 29 September, 1999

It is a strange feeling to approach The Weir for the first time some two years into its remarkable life: a life in which it has helped secure for its director Ian Rickson the Royal Court's artistic directorship, in which it continues to bankroll the Court's repeatedly extended exile from its Sloane Square premises, and in which it has established Conor McPherson as the hottest young Irish playwright bar none. Can the play, after so long, continue to bear the weight of its own success?

On the evidence of the opening night of its latest cast, the short answer is yes, it can. In a West End which is slowly inching back from the excess of glitzy musicals but to which understatement is still largely an alien concept, The Weir's ongoing success is almost an act of defiance on the part of theatregoers as a whole: you see, they seem to be saying, we don't need dazzlement, just a damn good story.

For McPherson is, so far in his brief but illustrious career, primarily a phenomenally fine storyteller. This is the first of his stage pieces to move away from the monologic form of earlier works like This Lime Tree Bower and Rum And Vodka, and in one respect the dialogue and interaction here serve mainly to frame the series of ghost stories recounted in this off-season Sligo bar. He has a truly brilliant ear for turns of phrase which are straightforward without being banal; indeed, the final story of the evening, Jack's un-ghostly account of his erstwhile beloved's wedding, has the same combination of scrupulous phrasing and profound impact as one of the classic examples of the form, Davin's anecdote in Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. What The Weir demonstrates is that McPherson can attain the same unobtrusive potency in dialogue, as the bar's population regulars Jack and Jim, young barman Brendan, the smalltown mogul Finbar and visiting Dubliner Valerie move through banter, contention, flirtation and a less definable sense of communion.

The new cast, then: Karl Johnson brings to Jack a rounded West Coast accent and a beautiful instinct for casual, seemingly minor gestures which discreetly underline his words; Anthony O'Donnell knows well how to calibrate the laughs he gets as Jim, such that they are warm but not obtrusive; Miles Anderson has long been accomplished at playing slightly bounderish figures, although in the end Finbar remains just about on the side of the angels; Ruth Gemmell commands the entire theatre space from the bar hatchway as she tells of Valerie's own, heartbreaking brush with the supernatural; and Daniel Flynn is, if anything, rather more discreet even than he needs to be behind the bar as Brendan. Crucially, though, it is the spirit of the ensemble which inhabits all five actors, disdaining theatrical fireworks in favour of a slow, fragrant warmth like that of the turf stove which sits to one side of the stage.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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