Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Weir

Conor McPherson
Sherman Theatre / Tobacco Factory Theatres
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

The Weir Credit: Camilla Adams
Orla Fitzgerald Credit: Camilla Adams
Steven Elliot, Simon Wolfe Credit: Nick Allsop

A casual search of the British Theatre Guide archives suggests that The Weir, which kicked off playwright Conor McPherson’s stellar career after its Olivier Award win in 1999, is one of the most performed contemporary plays of recent years. A touring production visited Cardiff’s New Theatre in 2001, and I have fond memories of the BBC radio adaptation.

Its appeal is clear—a spot of Irish whimsy is always attractive, especially when leavened with something darker. This production is the first collaboration between The Sherman and Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, where it will play following the Cardiff run.

We find ourselves in a small village pub, somewhere in rural Ireland, far enough from Dublin for the capital to be seen as exotic, but well used to being visited by foreigners, especially during the summer. The fact that this is not the tourist season, however, is signalled by the mere handful of regulars; not to mention the cold wind conjured up by sound designer Sam Jones, and Simon Slater’s subtle score, which hints at other-worldliness.

Proprietor Brendan—Patrick Moy—is informed by garage-owner Jack—Simon Wolfe—that someone new has moved in up the road; a lone woman, apparently. When Richard Clements’s Jim—Jack’s employee and general handyman—turns up, speculation begins—they are all single, after all. Presently, Valerie—Orla Fitzgerald—arrives, in the company of Steven Elliot’s Finbar, the hotelier who is the nearest thing they know to a high-flying businessman and would-be Lothario.

Kenny Miller’s set is instantly recognisable and meticulously assembled, down to the worn floorboards and rectangular patches of paleness which are revealed when old photographs are removed from the walls in order that Valerie be acquainted with the history of the area. And, given where we are, talk of history inevitably leads to talk of fairy folk, ghosts etc.

As the men tell stories of uncanny occurrences, they subtly one-up one another as they seek, semi-intentionally, to impress the attractive newcomer. As it happens, however, Valerie has her own tale to tell, the tragic weight of which threatens to kill the genial mood.

It is a tribute to McPherson’s fluent and robust writing, however, that it doesn’t. Even at the darkest points of the narrative, a wittily profane comment is only a moment away. And as in his play St Nicholas (which was produced at Cardiff’s The Other Room Theatre last year), the juxtaposition of the mundane with the supernatural seems entirely natural.

Fitzgerald is heart-breaking as the unhappy but hopeful woman who is seeking comfort in a place where the concept of the dead speaking to the living is not an alien one—her monologue seemed to silence even the autumnal coughs of the audience.

The male characters are all recognisable types—Elliot’s self-consciously charismatic, white-suited alpha male, Clements’s “more going on in there than you might think” quiet man, Moy’s solid stoic. Wolfe is given the meatiest role, however, as the cheery curmudgeon who is haunted by unpleasant memories of his own making.

Rachel O’Riordan directs with great sensitivity, but it one were to nit-pick, it might be suggested that the actors were unnaturally static at times; although this might reflect the fact that their characters are all trapped, to some degree.

The ghosts which inhabit The Weir are the one which haunt most of us: loss, loneliness, regret, lack of fulfilment. Nevertheless, even though it digs deep into the well of human suffering, this production manages to both charm and entertain.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith