Note: This review dates from October 1998 and the production's run at the West End's Duke of York's Theatre. The cast for this production has changed since the writing of this review.
To a person used to the hurried rhythms of city life, the pace of Conor McPherson's one act play, The Weir, can often seem slow and almost soporific.
Indeed for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, little appears to happen inside the prosaic Irish pub where the tale is set. Three men shelter from what Yeats calls the 'bitter black wind' of the Sligo coast, banalities are exchanged and the air becomes thick with expletives and peat smoke.
Then, as the Guinness goes down, local boy made good, Finbar, and his 'blow-in' tenant from Dublin, Valerie, wander into McPherson's bleak setting, and the pace shifts up a gear. The talk turns to some ghostly goings-on, in the way it does when you want to 'impress' a pretty young stranger: of fairy roads and ouija boards and odd occurrences in the local graveyard.
Just as we assume this simplistic ritual is over though, McPherson pulls the emotional rug from under our feet: polite, diffident, Valerie carries the baggage of an unspeakable tragedy and thus has the creepiest tale of all to tell.
At times the banter that fills the gloom has the ring of 'found language' about it, the sort of dialogue that can be overheard in bars anywhere from County Cork to County Kilburn. All of which would suggest that McPherson well and truly steeped himself in this stout-ridden milieu before putting pen to paper. A form of playwriting by osmosis, if you like.
This is a welcome third return for The Weir and once again director Ian Rickson brings some fine, naturalistic, performances out of his cast. Back in town are Brendan Coyle who plays Brendan, the stoic young barman; Jim Norton, superb as Jack, the sardonic, embittered garage owner; and Kieran Ahern, as his fortysomething assistant, Jim.
The fresh faces are Dermot Crowley in the part of Finbar and Michelle Fairley, who plays Valerie. Some more conviction in the role wouldn't go amiss in Ms Fairley's case, especially since the others are so utterly believable in theirs.
Rae Smith's set designs, too, are refreshingly honest, conjuring up a bar varnished dark brown by a half-century of nicotine. If I have a gripe though, it's that the whole thing seems lost a little on the Duke of York's stage; a smaller space might better convey the stifling atmosphere of the story. But these are small complaints; in all other respects The Weir hits the spot with all the potency of one of Brendan's generously poured malt whiskeys .
Conor McPherson's play The Weir may be set in a country Irish pub, but this is not the idyllic, nostalgia-soaked Ireland of the Caffrey's beer adverts. Nothing so blatantly commercial here. Nevertheless, despite its lack of pretence, The Weir casts a spell which, while understated, is nothing short of mesmerising. If only advertisers could bottle it.
The local in this southern Irish village attracts gambling regulars Jack (Jim Norton) and Jimmy (Kieran Ahern) whose conversations with barman Brendan (Brendan Coyle) are given more to long, familiar pauses and incomplete utterances than lively exchange. Talk slow, drink fast. Until, that is, former neighbour-turned-property-guru Finbar (Des McAleer) turns up with his new tenant Valerie (Julia Ford) who is not only young and attractive but a Dublin city-slicker totally beguiled by the others' country ways. Suddenly, the gaggle of bachelors are feeling talkative as they compete for Valerie's attentions.
The discussion wends its way through friendly jibes, local history lessons and bashful flirtations before gathering a ghostly pace. At first, Valerie seems spooked by the tales of fairies, Ouija boards and other communications from beyond the grave but, it turns out, she's got a story to silence them all.
The Weir is 26-year-old McPherson's third play and his first that allows him to flex his dialogue - versus monologue - muscles. It first opened last year at the Royal Court Upstairs to critical acclaim. This revival - in the Royal Court's larger downstairs venue and at the hands of the theatre's new artistic director Ian Rickson - finds the original cast well into their stride. Newcomer McAleer also seems to gel perfectly. Each grapples with their character's own loneliness, confusion and disappointment - as well as age-old grudges - with heartwarmingly subtle optimism.
Although Rickson's production trots along at a comfortable pace, plot takes an inevitable back-seat to atmosphere in The Weir. 'You've got to relish the details,' Jack explains at one point, summing up the power of this play. It's the lull of the accents, the quirky colloquialisms, the smoke from the peat, the faint background whining of the northerly (or is it westerly?) wind and the utter believability of the personalities that draw you in and make you yearn to place your orders at the bar before last call.