In a small pub in the middle of nowhere, Ireland, four men tell stories to impress an attractive young woman, a recent transplant from Dublin into the country. This is Conor McPherson’s The Weir.
Winner of the Laurence Olivier BBC Award for Best New Play in its London debut, The Weir has prestige. It is highly critically acclaimed for its carefully structured humor and poignance of its storytelling; the tales the men spin are the bulk of the dialogue and certainly outstrip any physical action, but as the stories become more unbelievable, more supernatural, and ultimately more genuinely, relateable, and so humanly sad, the language is all that matters.
It starts off as a play with inconsequential talk and gossip, and the Guinness tap isn’t working and isn’t it a crime to have to drink it out of the bottle? But as we go a little deeper we find it’s a play about ghosts both real and imagined, emotional and more downright spooky. Valerie (Amanda Stephens Lee), the young Dubliner who has left her life behind, at first seems to be only a listening device for the four men: Jack (Peter McAllum), a mechanic; Brendan (Lynden Jones), the bar’s publican; Jim (Barry French), Jack’s assistant at the garage; and Finbar (an energetic Patrick Connolly), the businessman who has been overseeing Valerie’s acquisition of her new home. However, as the play progresses, we learn she too has a story to tell about her mysterious past.
The New Theatre gives it all a good crack. That the bulk of the play is structured around spinning yarns is to its advantage because it’s a tradition that’s as Australian as it is Irish — especially that older male drinking culture we have here. Certainly, it’s in the monologues of the play that the actors begin to shine. Each character has their own particular moment in the sun and the company runs with them. Barry French is mesmerising as Jim, a somewhat slow paced mechanic’s assistant who talks about a very unusual day’s work, and when Peter McAllum’s blustering Jack finally reveals his most tender he finally gives his performance the credibility we’ve been waiting for all night. However, Lynden Jones, whose bartender Brendan doesn’t get a long story of his own, is the one who manages to hold the transitional scenes together with an ease and affability that’s downright pleasant to watch. His acting is subtle and it’s refreshing.
Dialect coach Nick Curnow should be commended for the effort that’s gone into catching the Irish accent for the stage; if it wasn’t entirely consistent through the company and the span of the play it wasn’t for lack of effort. I do have to wonder if at times the care given to how the words sounded managed to overpower the words themselves and their meanings, as some of the more clever passages seemed buried onstage.
The warm pub with a low-ish room and fire burning, created by set designer Jessica Sinclair Martin, managed to be sufficiently understated and quietly cozy enough, thanks to some clever lighting by Brenda Hartley, to be effective and even inviting.
The Weir invites you to take a seat and listen to a few good, solid stories, and laugh with them and consider them. It might make you think about your own ghosts. A wonderful play performed solidly.