The Weir at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Weir

Richmond Theatre, 2nd March 2018

I am jealous of anyone who has never seen Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir. They have something special to look forward to. I last saw it at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh at the beginning of 2016 in a fine production directed by Amanda Gaughan with a wonderful cast of Brian Gleeson, Frank McCusker, Lucianne McEvoy, Gary Lydon and Darragh Kelly. You might think that, given its structure, a series of memorable disclosures over one evening in a pub in Ireland, this was a play which might not warrant repeated viewing. You’d be wrong. I haven’t yet seen any of Conor McPherson’s other plays, bar one, which I hope to correct, but I can guess why this remains the favourite and most oft-performed.

Now Mr McPherson is currently packing them in, and getting award nominations, with Girl From the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre having transferred from the Old Vic. (Girl From the North Country review ****). He is fortunate in his choice of musical collaborator, a certain Mr B Dylan, and his cast, notably Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds and Arinze Kene, but these are his stories, his words and his direction.

For telling stories is what he is good at. Mind you he is in pretty good company. What is it that makes Ireland, per capita, the most talented country in the world when in comes to the dramatic word. This is a wild, unproven assertion, but you take my point. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Synge, Shaw, Wilde, Boucicault, Yeats (he founded the Abbey), Beckett, Behan, Friel, O’Casey, Walsh, Carr, McDonagh (alright he’s not really Irish). And that’s just the ones whose work I have seen. There are tons more.

Maybe it’s the education system, (which champions the word over other art forms), the civil structure, the pub culture, the craic. (I really do not mean to offend with gratuitous paddywhackery here). Maybe its the Catholic Church which tells a lot of lurid stories. Maybe its the long, and deeply held, oral tradition. Maybe it simply reflects past success. Irish writing outside the dramatic form also excels in the short story and the episodic. Maybe its the breadth of the diaspora. If you go round the world you have a lot of stories to tell. But none of this is particular or peculiar to Ireland and, anyway, such generalisations are surely slightly patronising.

Whatever the reason we should all be grateful and The Weir reminds us why. It’s a cold, windy night. Garage owner Jack, (veteran Sean Murray who I think has the juiciest part), comes in to the village pub, (perfectly realised in Madeleine Girling’s set), and pours himself a drink. From a bottle after tetchily discovering the Guinness tap is off. Eventually¬†Brendan, (here charmingly played by Sam O’Mahony), comes from the house behind and officially opens his bar. They chat about their day. They are joined by mild odd-job man Jim (John O’Dowd) and they discuss the arrival of Valerie in the village. Finally local boy made good businessman Finbar (Louis Dempsey) arrives with Valerie herself (Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who is the only member of the cast I had seen before, in Cheek By Jowl Winter’s Tale). Valerie is renting a house and Finbar is showing her around, as she moves from Dublin. Jack and Finbar start verbally sparring with each other, Jack plainly jealous of Finbar’s success and Finbar overly cocky. This is in part a display to impress Valerie. We know¬†these people even before the four mysterious supernatural stories emerge in succession. After the stories, we know them even better.

I’ll stop there in case you haven’t seen the play. Suffice to say all human, and beyond, life is there in the words of the five characters over 100 minutes or so. It is rooted in rural, Irish life, and there is no action to speak of, but at this performance, like I suspect all other performances, the audience is transfixed, so clearly Mr McPherson has tapped into universal truths. Myth is a powerful force in Ireland, and Mr McPherson is not the first of his countrymen to incorporate it into his plays, with Brian Friel an arch exponent for example. Others have also borrowed from the tradition: most recently Jez Butterworth in The Ferryman. Yet The Weir has a kind of special power because the stories are simultaneously extraordinary and day-to-day.

Moreover it isn’t just the monologues that suck you in. The dialogue is also compelling. These are lives lived, funny, sad, tender, sometimes desperate, filled with memory. Drink is an equivocal lubricant, opening the characters up and exaggerating emotions. I haven’t had a drink in years (don’t ask) but The Weir reminds me what I am missing. For despite the intimation of lives that have been blighted by sorrow or frustration these people seem to have had an enjoyable, fruitful evening in each other’s company. Think about it. One way or another your best memories will probably involve having a laugh or a heart to heart with friends. That’s life.

A superb play very well realised by the cast and director Adele Thomas. There were one or two moments where the transitions where a little ticklish, and the fading of the lights into the stories was a bit obvious, but it doesn’t really matter. When a play is this good, and the cast this attuned, then it can only be a success. This English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester co-production is nearly done I am afraid, just a couple more nights in Cambridge, but I see ETT’s next production is A Streetcar Named Desire. If it is coming anywhere near you I would seek it out based on the handful of ETT productions I have seen to date.

 

The Open House at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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The Open House

The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.

I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.

Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.

Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.

Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.