Conor McPherson’s much-acclaimed play premiered at the tiny upstairs theatre of the Royal Court in 1997 and was something of an overnight sensation. Over twenty years later, it’s still going strong. This touring production from Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has much to recommend it, but, in the spacious environs of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, it inevitably loses some of its intimacy. Predicated upon the Irish love of storytelling, it’s the tale of four men living in the wilds of County Leitrim – and a lone woman, who is invited into their most sacred stronghold, the titular local bar.
Jack (Sean Murray) is a garage owner, a cantankerous old batchelor with a fondness for Guinness and Silk Cut. Jim (John O’ Dowd) is his regular mechanic. Young Brendan (Sam O’ Mahoney) is the landlord of The Weir, which is replicated in every grimy detail and will be totally familiar to anyone who has ever experienced such establishments in rural Ireland. Finbar (Louis Dempsey) is a successful businessman and what passes for a big shot in these parts. He brings along Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) to introduce her to his friends. She is a ‘blow-in’, recently moved down from Dublin. The other men are convinced that Finbar, a married man, regards the new arrival as a potential romantic conquest, but that’s mostly conjecture on their part – and, as it turns out, she has other matters on her mind…
The scene is set for a series of unsettling ghost stories, recounted by each of the customers in turn. These are subtle affairs, brief inexplicable encounters, the kind of incidents discussed by drinkers the world over and ones that hint at the powerful pagan beliefs that still lurk behind the facade of modern sensibility. There are excellent performances from all five cast members and the characterisations seemed to me to be absolutely bang on. Sadly, however, it’s during these stories that I am most aware of the physical distance between the actors and large parts of the audience. I find myself holding my breath in an attempt to capture every word and, given that all the characters except Valerie deliver their lines in a broad Irish brogue, it isn’t always easy to be sure you’ve heard everything.
What’s the answer? A little more poke on the microphones, perhaps? And a little less of that eerie background music as each story approaches its conclusion? Hard to say. For sure, I want to be right up close to the actors, to feel that I am sitting in that bar alongside them, sharing the drink and the conversation.
Still, if a larger venue means the play is seen by a wider audience, then that’s no bad thing – and it may just be a worthwhile trade-off.