There is only one place better to while away the hours on a cold winter evening than a warm cosy pub. The Wyndham’s Theatre.
You get both in Josie Rourke’s revival of Conor McPherson’s 1997 play, which arrives in the West End following a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse last year.
Rourke’s first West End transfer since her appointment as Artistic Director of the Covent Garden venue, the acclaimed production transports audiences to a pub in the rural Irish countryside.
You can hear the wind outside and sense the locals’ relief as they come in from the cold to quench their thirst. But this is a place so unaccustomed to strangers that requesting white wine at the bar is like asking for a stick of celery in a sweet shop and using a corkscrew requires the concentration needed to perform an acute surgical procedure.
Such is the effect of Valerie, who comes to the pub for the first time having recently moved to the area. She may not fit in at first but, as the regulars begin to share stories of supernatural experiences, Valerie decides to impart her own tale, one that does more than live up to those of her new found drinking partners.
You wouldn’t know that the cast had already put on scores of performances at the Donmar. Dervla Kirwan is mesmerising as the mysterious newcomer whose tragic and gripping story is spoken so naturally it is as if she is telling it for the first time.
Brian Cox brings a visceral energy to the gruff-voiced Jack. His indignation at finding the Guinness tap isn’t yielding its usual supply is just one of the powerfully comic moments his performance provides, but Jack is essentially a lonely figure who seeks refuge from his solitude in the company of his drinking companions.
So is Ardal O’Hanlon’s socially awkward Jim. The Father Ted actor is both endearing and humorous as the naïve and solitary single man who thinks it a good idea to embark on an anecdote about perverts in the company of a woman living alone in a new neighbourhood.
There are no radical transformations here. The characters remain unchanged from beginning to end. Yet Rourke’s polished production is so riveting you remain on the edge of your seat for its hour and 50 minute duration.
For a play that relies entirely on storytelling, it’s staggering how the stillness speaks, the silence and brooding facial expressions saying more than any words, even those from the pen of McPherson, ever could.
The Weir originally played at the Donmar Warehouse in spring 2013 when the following First Night Feature by Charlotte Marshall was published:
The hottest day of the year may not be the ideal setting for an evening of atmospheric storytelling, but, humidity or not, The Weir still manages to cast a chill across the Donmar Warehouse’s audience.
Starring Dervla Kirwan as a woman who arrives in a sleepy – read comatose – Irish village, Josie Rourke’s take on Conor McPherson’s pint-sized play is heavy with atmosphere and light on gimmicks.
Save for the a howling wind outside Tom Scutt’s shabby pub set, there are no ghostly tricks or manipulative stage effects, just a capable cast who relish McPherson’s skilful storytelling to conjure up fear amongst a healthy dose of banter and good craic.
Because, you see, other than the mysterious Valerie – and while any member of the female race would be deemed mysterious at this local, she really is harbouring a secret – life at this pub never much changes; while Brian Cox’s cantankerous Jack holds court night after night, Ardal O’Hanlon’s heartbreakingly awkward Jim props up the bar, barman Brendan (Peter McDonald) puts on a show debating whether to have another drink and Risteárd Cooper’s Finbar is fated to be the group’s affectionate punch bag due to his ‘flashy’ ways.
These are men who pay for drinks with the loose change in their pockets, rarely leave the long-stretching fields surrounding their home and whose fathers drunk their before them. In contrast, Valerie’s Dublin past may make her appear glamorous, but as the whisky bottle empties, they discover they have more in common than they first thought; heartbreak and fleeting connections a running theme throughout the evening.
Circled and watched intently by the four misfit locals, Kirwan is haunting as Valerie; her complex character’s fragility becoming more and more apparent until the final revelation of the circumstances that have led to her arrival is revealed with a truly gut-wrenching delivery, which stays with you longer after the lights have come up. Cox is equally moving as Jack, offering the character a vulnerability more subtle than Valerie’s, but just as affecting.
While the arrival of Valerie may shake things up – white wine being served in the pub for the first time for a start, even if it does arrive in a half pint glass – you get the feeling tomorrow night will bring more of the same. Because ultimately, even if McPherson’s play may be full of truly frightening tales told as the night draws in, it’s less a horror and more a bittersweet snapshot of a community where community still exists.