Conor McPherson

The Birds

22/08/22

The Space at Symposium Hall (Annexe), Edinburgh

I’m a fan of Daphne du Maurier’s short story,The Birds. I like the set-up, the idea of a family under siege, their home slowly transforming into a prison, and the frustration the central character, Nat, feels, when his neighbours dismiss his fears that something is amiss. Conor McPherson’s 2016 stage script dilutes this somewhat, replacing Nat’s family with two women, strangers to him and to each other. The disparate threesome, all seeking somewhere safe from the birds, hole up together in an abandoned house, where they struggle to get along. Much is made of the women’s rivalry, because – of course – they’re both attracted to Nat, and what else do women do but catfight over men? Gah. Still, at least there’s no caged loved birds, so we can be thankful for that…

St Michael’s Players (from Chiswick) certainly give this all they’ve got. Things start off promisingly, with Diane (Arabella Harcourt-Cooze), who’s been managing just fine on her own, tending to the injured Nat (Neil Dickins), who has just stumbled in. The tension between the two is tangible, especially when he rants about his ex-wife having him sectioned, all while swinging a hammer. Harcourt-Cooze is mesmerising here, watchful and tense – and, when the moment passes, there’s a palpable sense of relief in the room. But Diane and Nat get along well, until Julia (Georgina Parren) arrives, driving a wedge between them, the younger woman displacing the older. Julia wields her fecundity like a weapon, but she shouldn’t underestimate Diane…

The four actors (David Burles plays Tierney, a small but crucial part) perform well, and commit fully to their roles. However, I don’t think enough is made of the existential threat. Initially, the birds’ presence is clear: there are recorded sound effects, as well as some off-stage flapping, which combine to create an atmosphere of dread. However, as the play progresses, the outside danger becomes less pressing, and we’re soon embroiled in a domestic drama, with only occasional reminders that the apocalypse is happening just the other side of the door. I think the stakes need raising here: we need to feel afraid of what the birds might do, to believe that they are growing in number and becoming ever more dangerous. The noises need to be louder and more incessant, and we could do something visual too, even just a simple lighting effect. Without these elements, the play essentially doesn’t fly.

Which is a shame because there’s much here to admire – particularly those committed performances.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Weir

20/02/18

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.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney