Conor McPherson’s interest in ghost stories continues with this tale of a defrocked Reverend who attempts to out the spirits haunting his young cousin.
Jim Norton’s Reverend Berkeley is a jocular soul who thinks he’s funnier than he is (which actually makes him funny) and has a child-like fascination with the occult. It’s 1822 and he’s sailed over to Ireland from England with his philosopher friend Charles Audelle to escort Hannah, the daughter of his cousin Madeleine, back to Northampton for an arranged marriage. The nuptials will inject much needed funds into Madeleine’s Irish estate, which exists in a state of crumbling decay. But feisty, unhappy Hannah has other preoccupations; after witnessing her father hang himself in the house some years before, she now has visions – of ghosts, or perhaps premonitions – and fears for her future. Over-excited by this fact, the Reverend takes it upon himself to delve a little deeper.
McPherson’s piece – which he also directs – is ultimately about human relationships, past and present. Stoic, realistic, prosaic, Fenella Woolgar’s Madeleine is preoccupied by her worries about the estate and her daughter’s future. She dismisses Hannah’s visions and her own previous ghostly experiences as bad dreams brought on by indigestion, and sees her cousin the Reverend as “a romantic” for believing in it. As a result, her relationship with Hannah is fraught, with the girl cruelly rejecting her mother’s plan to follow her to England.
Meanwhile in a sub-plot, estate manager Mr Fingal (Peter McDonald) expresses his love for the widow Madeleine, much to the dismay of maid Clare. But Madeleine is haunted by the ghost of her painful marriage.
There’s much humour in the piece, too, mainly provided by Norton’s jovial Reverend, though Fingal gives us a brilliantly inventive excuse for a black eye. Adrian Schiller, as Audelle, finds humour – mainly drunken – in the tragic figure of a man who rejected his family and disgraced his own career. In contrast, Emily Taaffe’s Hannah is resolute in her misery. The character’s channelling of her father during a late-night séance evokes Taaffe’s performance as Abigail in The Crucible last summer.
For a ghost story, there are few ghostly moments – much is spoken of rather than seen – though perhaps this enhances the effect of one particular moment, which sent genuine chills down my spine.
Rae Smith’s mansion-house set adds to the spooky feel, with its faded grandeur, decaying wallpaper and bits of missing plaster, notably above the fireplace where Hannah’s father once hanged himself. It’s certainly not a place I’d want to visit at night, even if it did mean an amusing conversation with the entertaining Reverend.