The Weir

Conor McPherson
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2003)

Conor McPherson's award winning play set in a small bar in rural Ireland provided the Royal Court with a major success when it first moved into the West End while its Chelsea home was rebuilt. Before this play, McPherson had written a few plays, including This Lime Tree Bower that appeared at the Bush in 1996 and had a good revival production at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, in which the characters simply told stories directly to the audience. The Weir takes this storytelling concept and packages it up in a conventional play structure, so that the characters tell their ghost stories to one another rather than directly to the audience.

In an interview in the programme, McPherson says that he was inspired to start writing after reading David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross. At first glance, the slow pace of the dialogue in The Weir would seem to be the antithesis of the quickfire speech patterns that are Mamet's trademark. However on closer inspection, they both use the same stammered words and half-finished sentences based on real but exaggerated ways of speaking. There are many moments in the play when a long pause is followed by a throwaway word such as "yes" and then another long pause, which is brilliantly observed from how people speak when they have nothing in particular to say. This style is difficult to perform naturally, and the actors in this production do not quite convince with some of the more broken up sections of dialogue and do not always seem confident with the long pauses. Perhaps it was a similar lack of confidence with the absence of any real physical action in the play that produced some moves that are not necessary and do not seem to be how these people would move around this familiar environment.

The most natural performance comes from the person who has the least to say, at least amongst the men. Kieran Lagan as Brendan, the barman, spends most of the play watching and listening to others, but he does so convincingly and with moments of unforced humour and some genuinely touching moments. The ghost stories, always accompanied by a rather unsubtle dimming of the lights, usually produce adequate tension, particularly the last part of Finbar's (Michael O'Connor) tale when he talks of his own fear of turning round when he felt that something was on the stairs and Jim's (Dan Mullane) encounter with a possible ghost in a graveyard with a disturbing twist. The most emotional tale is the final one told by Valerie, which combines a supernatural tale with the loss of her own child, and Joanne Mitchell's telling of this story is compelling and a real tear-jerker.

Patrick Connellan's interesting set combines a naturalistic bar interior, complete with worn patches of lino with the floorboards showing through, with a symbolic model of the Weir of the title enclosing the bar and the lives of the people within. The floor around the bar is shiny and rippled like water frozen in time and twisted shiny bars descend from the ceiling at the rear of the set (which the actors enter through). The whole play is accompanied by a soundtrack of the howling wind outside.

This is a reasonable production of an interesting play that takes the audience from belly-laugh comedy to ghostly tension to tears, often in a very short space of time. Some of the minor problems with the production will probably improve when the actors settle down in their parts. This is the sort of play theatres like the Octagon should be attempting and that provincial audiences should be given the chance to see and enjoy.

"The Weir" runs until 22nd November

David Chadderton