October 5, 2011 6:07 pm

The Veil, National Theatre, London

Conor McPherson made his name with his superb ghost story play The Weir, and the supernatural plays a big part too in his new work set in 19th-century Ireland. There are certainly plenty of spirits of the bottled variety around – all the characters tipple enthusiastically – but are there spectres of miserable souls present too?

This is the question that intrigues the Reverend Berkeley (sprightly Jim Norton), a jovial defrocked priest with aspirations to be a medium, when he arrives at a remote country house in 1822. His task is to chaperone Hannah (Emily Taaffe), the teenage daughter of the house, to her arranged wedding in England, but he is keen to follow up the fact that Hannah hears voices, and to that end he has in tow an odd, laudanum-addicted chum (Adrian Schiller, wonderfully creepy), who will help him contact the spirit world.

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McPherson’s setting is bold and intriguing, and the troubled estate, peopled with eccentrics and plagued by money worries, calls Chekhov to mind. But the piece has its own flavour. The family are impoverished landlords and the political backdrop – the failed crops, starving peasants, miserable tenants, widespread hostility – collides with personal trauma and metaphysical brooding to create a weird, rich brew.

There certainly seems to be a lot of unhappiness, unrequited love and bad faith washing around the household, but do Hannah’s experiences reflect supernatural activity, emotional instability, post-traumatic stress (after a terrible childhood shock) or acute sensitivity to a collective guilt? As time presses on, the echoes of Chekhov are joined by Wilkie Collins and J.B. Priestley.

Fascinating ingredients, then. McPherson keeps you guessing to the last and springs a couple of great, hair-raising surprises. Yet the overall impression is rather underwhelming: the play feels less than the sum of its parts. There are just too many hares to pursue here, leaving you unsure where the play is leading, and causing it to stall. The possibility that Hannah can really see beyond time is enthralling, but doesn’t quite lend the piece the eerie dimension it could. The plot feels too bitty and the dialogue too wordy.

But the play’s ambition and originality are attractive even if it doesn’t quite gel. Among a fine cast in McPherson’s own production, Brid Brennan is outstanding as the housekeeper and Caoilfhionn Dunne glowers brilliantly as the housemaid, while Rae Smith’s design of decaying grandeur lit by flickering candles is wonderfully unsettling.

3 stars

The National Theatre

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