You can always trust the Irish to come up with a cracking yarn and Conor McPherson’s haunting, melancholic bar room drama, The Weir, raises goosebumps and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The 1997 multi award-winning play, revived by English Touring Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, opened at the Mercury last night ahead of a UK tour and it has lost none of its power to mesmerise.
The plot centres around a desolate rural Irish pub, The Weir, which acts as a refuge and sanctuary for the area’s lost and lonely. Its shabby and neglected. God knows how it stays open.
There we meet three ordinary blokes. Garage owner Jack appears to prop the bar up most nights and gets in a huff when he finds that the Guinness is off.
There’s the quiet and unassuming Jimmy, odd-job man, occasional grave-digger, and long-term carer for his mammy and, finally, Brendan, the young landlord, the silent type who only pipes up when debating whether to join his regulars in having a small one.
It’s a dark and stormy night. The wind is howling (accompanied off-stage by the plaintive lament of a violin) and the men exchange their usual banter.
Only tonight there is a new topic of conversation. Former regular, Finbar, the only one of the group who is married, and who moved into town to run a hotel, has been seen on the arm of a young woman.
But she’s no pick-up. Finbar is acting as her personal guide and he arrives at the pub with Valerie, who is renting a nearby property.
Pretty soon he is flashing the cash and bragging a little about his own success in business.
Worse, he encourages Jack to regale Valerie with a ghostly story concerning the house she’s renting.
One thing leads to another and both the reluctant Jimmy and, surprisingly, Finbar, tell their tales.
The story-telling climaxes with Valerie revealing a personal, and supernatural heartache.
Amid the folk tales and fairy stories, beautifully told by Sean Murray’s crusty old Jack, the quietly spoken John O’Dowd as Jim, and Louis Dempsey’s confidently-played Finbar, McPherson’s restrained, lyrical dialogue conjures up a sense of isolation and loneliness among the patrons.
Neither Jack or Jim have ever been married, Valerie is escaping a terribly tragedy, and even Brendan is hiding away behind the bar.
Finbar escaped and made something of himself and is castigated by a jealous Jack.
But the garage owner, who makes a simple job last a day to give him something to do, eventually admits profound regret over missed opportunities.
The Weir is a cleverly constructed one-act play that draws the audience in through playful repartee.
It then unnerves them with masterful story-telling, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and finishes with a quite moving admission from the normally unsentimental Jack.
Sean Murray displays an expert hand at pouring a pint, emptying the glass and telling a good story while Natalie Radmall-Quirke, as Valerie, delivers a compelling performance as a young mother consumed with pain and guilt.
I wish Sam O’Mahoney had been more forthcoming as the taciturn Brendan. The regulars certainly don’t go to the pub for his riveting conversation although his extra large measures may be the secret lure.
John O’Dowd’s Jimmy seems reticent to engage anyone in conversation but, after a lifetime living with his mother it’s no wonder he feels uncomfortable around the friendly Valerie.
Lee Curran and Dara Hoban’s atmospheric lighting is superb – even though most of the 95-minute play is performed in a dingy half-light – and Richard Hammarton’s gentle, lilting sound is just perfect.
The Weir has been called a modern masterpiece. I’ll drink to that.
Running at The Mercury Theatre, as part of its Made In Colchester season, until tomorrow.
2017 UK Tour dates
September 19-23, Harrogate Theatre September 26-30, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham October 3-7, Cast, Doncaster October 10-14, Bristol Old Vic October 17-21, Exeter Northcott Theatre October 24-28, Oldham Coliseum Theatre November 7-11, Lighthouse, Poole November 15-18, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield November 21-25, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
Haunting, atmospheric and melancholic, Conor McPherson's earthy, unassuming tale of loneliness and regret is beautifully performed by its cast of five. A masterpiece of understatement.