Irishman Conor McPherson’s latest play, The Seafarer, received its world premiere last week (28 September 2006, previews from 20 September) at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre, where it runs in rep until 11 January 2007 before embarking on a regional tour (See News, 21 Jun 2006).

McPherson – whose plays have included The Weir, Dublin Carol and Shining City, all premiered at the Royal Court - makes his National Theatre debut directing the play, which stars Conleth Hill, Ron Cook, Karl Johnson, Michael McElhatton and Jim Norton.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sharky has returned to Dublin to look after his irascible, ageing brother who’s recently gone blind. Old drinking buddies Ivan and Nicky are holed up at the house too, hoping to play some cards. But with the arrival of a stranger from the distant past, the stakes are raised ever higher. In fact, Sharky may be playing for his very soul.

On the whole, first night critics felt that, although McPherson treads his own well-worn ground, his writing remains sharp and compelling, with extremely well-drawn characterisations. If there were concerns about the believability of a crucial plot twist, there was also high praise all round for the five performances.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) – “You could complain that the small world of Conor McPherson is always the same from play to play. Drink, Christmas, confession, hidden secrets and haunting stories are recurrent characteristics. But he writes so beautifully and extracts such variation on this old-fashioned male preserve that you never feel the subject is exhausted. After a near-perfect first act, though, you do feel that the play needs editing and that McPherson, who directs, should have cut and reshaped the second act…. Karl Johnson… and Ron Cook… are outstandingly good. Johnson looks as though his insides are being gnawed away by guilt and despondency, while Cook exudes dangerous bonhomie in his snappy suit and angled titfer. Jim Norton’s glazed and stumbling Richard is a magisterial portrait of carpet-slippered low life…. Ivan is played with brilliant slobber by Conleth Hill…. Michael McElhatton’s street-wise, self-deluding Nicky completes the biggest bunch of losers since last season’s Sunderland football team.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Conor McPherson, that exquisite playwright whose lost, lonely characters often see life through an alcoholic's glass darkly, has now allowed flickers of optimism to shine upon his sombre, Irish world picture.... A quintet of actors bring these characters to comic/emotional life and achieve, in McPherson's own meticulously-wrought production, the finest ensemble acting in town…. On Christmas Eve morning Sharky, a love-lorn fiftysomething man who cannot keep a working or a private life together, rouses his recently-blinded, tottering brother Richard, who has slept the night on the floor, while their married, hung-over friend Ivan totters down to search for a relieving drop of the hard stuff. McPherson makes predictable but effective fun of the symbiotically bound brothers, dutiful Sharky vainly trying to clean up his querulous, demanding, drink-prone brother, played to perfection by Jim Norton. The underlying sense, however, is of the men trying to conceal their depression from themselves and each other.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “There’s some fine writing here and, since Norton, Johnson and Cook are actors who in a just world would be household names, some excellent acting. But there are doubts. Doesn’t the author, who also directs, take inordinate time evoking this boozy, crazy household? Isn’t the diabolic intrusion a bit over the top? And couldn’t he tell us more about Sharky’s sin and its effect on the man himself? Johnson’s pinched, arid face and uneasy body language reveal a lot, but a few more lines might clarify and maybe deepen the picture. Still, I laughed, became increasingly absorbed, and ended up impressed by McPherson’s originality, as I always do with his work. There’s also a thoroughly unfashionable denouement, especially for the National, which… has recently seemed wilfully anti-religious. But McPherson’s view of the world isn’t a narrow, rationalist one. And that’s refreshing.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) - “Conor McPherson's characters regularly wrestle with their inner demons. Now, in this sparkling and suspenseful new play, one of them has to engage with the devil himself. And, even if I can't quite believe in the cathartic climax, McPherson proves yet again he is both a born yarn-spinner and an acute analyst of melancholy Irish manhood…. I think redemption comes too easily through a clever narrative trick. But the brilliance of the play lies in McPherson's deftly inserted character detail: Richard's angry sourness, for instance, is exemplified in his vision of marriage, gleaned from cleaning windows, as a series of "banjaxed relationships". And McPherson's famed gift for monologues is vividly displayed in Lockhart's description of hell as a permanent form of self-loathing. McPherson's Cottesloe production, neatly designed by Rae Smith, who makes the room resemble an ashen pub, is superbly acted…. In McPherson's vision we create our own infernos in seeking to assuage our guilts and failures through false stimulants; if there is a real devil in this engrossing, sobering play, it is the demon drink.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell