Writer: Conor McPherson
Director: Adele Thomas
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
20 years since its first performance at the Royal Court Theatre, English Touring Theatre in a co-production with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre bring their own take on Conor McPherson’s drama to The Lowry in Salford.
The play is set in rural Ireland, and the Irishness of its cosmology underpins the entire production. Paganism, catholicism, superstition and rational argument collide in the “craic”, the bluster and banter of the locals in Brendan’s bar. The pub reeks of beer and quiet desperation, cigarette smoke and longing, and the deep and shallow connections through which people touch one another’s lives.
Brash bachelor Jack, and his lugubrious pal Jim are regulars at Brendan’s. Local entrepreneur Finbar is making a special visit to introduce Valerie to the town. She is down from Dublin, has just taken over a house in the village, and Finbar is giving her the full tour of its eccentricities. Brendan’s bar has plenty of these on offer, and as the pints and shorts are downed, a series of stories are told. Some might be classified as “fairy stories”, some as “ghost stories”, but some are “real life” stories that create an intense link between friends and strangers – and audience – that carry a powerful narrative and emotional charge. Not through the display of emotion, always underplayed, but from the power of the stories.
Valerie is a woman in exclusively male territory; especially so in rural Ireland. She unintentionally becomes the catalyst for much of the chemistry between the men. She has her own reasons for seeking isolation, a place of peace and quiet. But the fragile veils between the real and unreal, the known and unknown worlds, that the characters evoke in their storytelling, echo her own deeply-felt experience of tragic loss.
One by one the stories are told. The wind whining outside. Occasionally the strain of a violin adds poignancy or eerieness to a key moment. The feeble lights of the bar fade and listeners are wrapt by the unfolding tales. Subtle shifts in positioning and lighting create focus on key players, bringing a breathless suspense to the performance.
If it were all about the stories that the charcters bring to their brief encounter in Brendan’s Bar it would be no more than a jig-a-jig version of The Canterbury Tales. But the interaction of the characters is also well-observed. Their banter arcs and falls, waxes and wanes, as the evening takes its course.
The set is small, so it would be easy to describe the bar room setting as intimate. The intimacy is created not only by the set, but by the sense of a hostile world outside the hearth of the pub, and the sharing of experience, of stories, with others.
There are other dynamics at play: The gulf between urban sophistication and rural grittiness; the sense of love lost, and of life unlived; the hollowness of success and the loneliness of failure; the importance of simple rituals in bonding people together: “Cheers!”
The cast are impeccable, and all performances are subtle and nuanced. Sean Murray’s ‘Jack’ provides the emotional energy to the piece, until Natalie Radmall-Quirke trumps him with her own backstory. Louis Dempsey as Finbar portrays the small town entrepreneur with repellant poise and believable vulnerability. John O’Dowd’s Jim is a brooding humble presence, still waters personified. Sam O’Mahony, as the unambitious barman Brendan, is a voice of beleaguered reason throughout.
Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner