Tragic facts scarier than ghost stories

The Weir @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

The Weir @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

By CHARLES ROBERTS

Its reputation rolled before it, carried on a wave as national newspaper reviewers went overboard with their accolades.

Certainly The Weir has some luminous moments and one especially glowing cameo. The actors are a true ensemble, responding to direction of authority and iron nerve. And the lighting – a vital adjunct here – is an art form in itself. But, for all that, it does not for this reviewer live up to the spate of superlatives it has enjoyed. Though judging from the solid applause at final curtain last night, the audience takes a different view.

The setting is a rural bar, perhaps in Sligo – playwright Conor McPherson is not specific. The bar is owned and run by Brendan (Simon Wolfe), a young man suffocating in his job and his life. Enter Jack (Ewan Hooper), prematurely middle aged, unmarried, alone and lonely. Then Jim (Fred Ridgeway), who merges into the landscape like lichen on windswept stone; and Finbar (John Stahl), the local big boy in wealth and personality. And at last the catalyst to the tale, Valerie (Lesley McGuire), a newcomer with a past.

Outside the wind howls, and the three customers tell ghostly stories, presumably to impress the girl. They tell them with Irish relish, but never with quite enough power to touch the listener's emotions.

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Then Valerie reveals her own story. Not faerie fantasy this one, but tragic fact. And suddenly the whole play comes to life, hackles rise and breathing slows, for Lesley McGuire has us surely in her grip, and when she ends, the men around her freeze, unable to move or speak – and the audience is in perfect rapport.

Here director Ian Rickson's controlling hand clearly shows. Several times he has stilled his players into tableaux vivants, with terrific effect under Paule Constable's Dutch oils lighting. But this time the freeze holds and holds – and the audience stops breathing altogether.

All the while, save for short interjections, Brendan has been watching, listening – and watching Valerie most of all. Slowly a parable becomes clear, typified by Jack: Live for today – for tomorrow you may be old and alone.

At the close, Valerie finds Brendan's car keys and hands them to him. This is the moment of truth – these two, surely, will unlock for each other the boon of freedom and redemption. So Irish, so believable, and characters so real we can forget they are actors. Despite my caveats, an engrossing evening.

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