Saturday 23rd September 2017 at Harrogate Theatre
Conor McPherson’s The Weir has enjoyed glowing praise since its debut twenty years ago. The piece won the 1997 Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Daily Telegraph declared it to be ‘One of the best plays of the past century’. Featuring the likes of Brian Cox in a 2014 production, this play has clearly gained great recognition for good reason. Yet while the play is definitely well written, time between tales is lengthy and those tales – when the characters get to them – while ‘chilling’ as promised, now seem dated in that much more chilling examples now exist.
In a co-production of Mercury Theatre Colchester and English Touring Theatre, this tour to mark the 20th Anniversary of The Weir, directed by Adele Thomas, boasts some great talent in the cast and certainly delivers an engaging drama. McPherson’s script gains good laughs through its gentle portrayal of somewhat stereotypical Irish characters and manages to achieve some brilliant dramatic tension. John O’Dowd put me in mind of Roger Lloyd’s Pack in The Vicar of Dibley as Jim, the reserved simple fellow of few words – with those few words often tactless or laughably ineffectual regardless of intentions. Sam O’Mahony is warm and relatable as Brendan, the easy going pub landlord comfortable with his lot and willingly led by his back slapping patrons. Louis Dempsey plays the self-assured Finbar with great energy and good nature but I found him unconvincing at times as his big smiles felt empty and strained for the actor. Sean Murray endears as Jack, the bachelor of the small village who is as much a part of the country bar as the dated pictures on the wall for decades before. Murray is the vehicle for much of the humour and Jim is cast securely in the role of charming regular with a taste for beer and pulling legs. Natalie Radmall-Quirke is entirely credible as the unassuming, low-maintenance Valerie; a newcomer wishing to please in this unfamiliar set up with a bunch of quirky and well-meaning locals.
It is the tales from O’Dowd and Radmall-Quirke which excel most in writing and delivery, with each presenting their stories with a natural off-hand demeanour until the act of relating of the story to others takes hold of them all over again. McPherson’s writing of those two particular stories is brilliant; drawn out long enough to draw us in and delivered without excessive or anti-climactic patterns of speech – just subtle details planted at the start of the story which are strategically returned as the action escalates towards the finish. Atmospheric lighting design from Lee Curran compliments the moodier scenes beautifully, darkening the room with such subtlety that it hasn’t been noticed until the moment is winding down. The accompanying ideas about death and the fate of those who die are powerful; that the evil remain so in intentions beyond the stopping of the heart is indeed chilling, as is the thought of an innocent soul being anything less than perfectly at peace. Other stories from Jack and Finbar are engaging and well done, but they lack the depth of implication in the stories of Valerie and Jim.
My issue with it is that while the ghostly tales are gripping owing to the combination of writing and delivery, the in-between scenes are mildly entertaining rather than thoroughly engaging. Frictions between loyal local Jack and the deserter-now-returned Finbar are flashes of more engaging content in such scenes and some of the conversation does illuminate the lives of the characters, but I felt like there was something deeply lacking in such scenes. It’s not that there’s anything to dislike in the characters, it’s just that when the ‘chilling’ tales are not front and centre, the atmosphere falls flat and it feels like a waiting game as they fill time before the ‘next act’ so to speak. I was expecting more from this, I’ll admit, and as each of the characters tell their tale, I anticipated a dramatic finish that would see a devastatingly clever link between the stories told – perhaps the two little girls would be linked? Or the ladies? But no. The stories remain very separate and the closing scene very run of the mill. It’s a shame that the character of Brendan was denied a story of his own – perhaps if he had been given time to deliver something more dramatic than all that went before in the closing scenes, there would be less dead time waiting between the tales. Yes, there is a more dramatic revelation in Valerie’s story than in the others; a story which takes us from heresy and adolescent whimsy to personal trauma, but that is the only truly hard-hitting moment in the play for me.
The Weir is a well written drama featuring great high points and subtle complexity in the telling of creepy tales. It is a piece that plays on the easily spooked sensibilities of the audience and manages to skilfully weave a web of disquieting details within simple stories from likeable, if a little too-typical, characters. If the marketing had not hyped this play to such significant proportions with each poster declaring it to be ‘One of the best plays of the past century’, perhaps I wouldn’t have found it to be such an anti-climax in comparison. Perhaps it is the team behind this production which has failed to capture the sheer brilliance others have seen in productions of this play. Who knows. But as it stands, it’s a very good piece of dramatic theatre, but it remains a little dated in content, failing to deliver anything mind-blowing owing to a disappointing finish and for me, it leaves us in the dark waiting for the somewhat meaningless exchanges to segues into something more interesting too often and for too long.