Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Weir

Conor McPherson
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2008)

One of the main characters of Conor McPherson's debut play proclaims near the end that "This has been a strange little evening for me." It's a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Perhaps the pre-publicity for McPherson's award-winning work builds it up too much. He was acclaimed as a major new dramatist when the play premiered at the Royal Court in 1997 and The Weir picked up an Olivier award for best new play.

The New Vic describes it as a "memorable, moving and frightening ghost story" and a "modern masterpiece".

I found it moving in places but not especially memorable and not in the least frightening. On the performance I saw, whoever felt it's a masterpiece must have been kissing the Blarney Stone.

The Weir is set in a bar in the west of Ireland. Local bachelors are swapping spooky stories to impress a new arrival Valerie who's living in what's supposed to be a haunted house.

Liz Cooke, who thoroughly researched Irish pubs, has come up with a set that's so atmospheric you can almost smell the hops and it looks the type of inviting pub that's so prevalent in Ireland.

McPherson has captured the mood of the establishment perfectly, with the main characters discussing their community's peccadilloes over several drinks. However, there's very little going on and it's a good half hour before anyone gets around to telling the first ghostly tale.

The play begins with Jack (Billy Boyle), Jim (Ged McKenna) and barman Finbar (Steve Nealon) expressing their distrust for Brendan (Dominic Gately) who's done well for himself in the property market and might also have succeeded in establishing a relationship with Valerie - despite his being married.

Valerie (Mairead Conneely) becomes so comfortable in the pub's surroundings that she opens up and tells them her own revealing story.

Potentially the play has everything going for it: good dialogue; direction by the New Vic's artistic director Theresa Heskins who knows exactly how to make the most of the theatre-in-the-round; and subtle lighting from Charles Balfour to heighten the tension during each supernatural tale.

But something has gone missing between page and stage. There's a lack of excitement and energy, exemplified by the characters' settling any dispute with a handshake before yet another round is ordered. I almost wished a couple of Englishmen would turn up and create mayhem after they'd had a few pints!

Seeing this production, I'm at a loss to understand how the play could seem rather ordinary and pedestrian after having had such major acclaim in the past. Yet it's hard to put your finger on any major faults with Theresa Heskins' version. It's reasonably well acted and presented by an experienced cast and crew - but there are times when the action is flatter than a day-old pint of beer and needs an injection of fizz to kick it into life.

A strange evening indeed.

Reviewer: Steve Orme