In some ways, the most surprising thing about Conor McPherson’s breakthrough play is how un-spooky it is. It may take the form of a collection of ghost stories exchanged in a rural Irish pub, but the dramatic burden of it is not the eerie other world that touches each of the tellers, but rather their tentative contact with each other as a result of such shared experiences. It is as if they can only live together in this world through that one. Josie Rourke’s revival – the play’s first major outing in London since its 1997 premiere – does not bother ratcheting up the “atmosphere”. She hardly even deploys any wind noises (for it is, in best tradition, a dark and stormy night), and when a framed photograph fell off the wall (I presume unintentionally) in the opening minutes, none of the audience seemed to jump.
Before The Weir, McPherson was known as a master monologist, but actually getting his characters to talk to each other was, in his terms, a revolutionary move. They may still be most in control when telling their respective tales, but in a way that is the playwright’s point: how ill at ease they are when interacting seriously with others. The banal banter is captured with the keenest of ears, but when matters get any deeper . . . This is especially apparent in the two main antagonists: Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), a big fish in a small pool, and Jack, to whom Brian Cox brings the same partial glimmer of embittered self-awareness he showed in McPherson’s monologue Saint Nicholas.
Rourke elicits more comedy than may have been expected, but this shows the range of the writing rather than an inconsistent or misconceived approach to it. Dervla Kirwan deploys an embarrassing girlish giggle to counterbalance her character’s harrowing recollections; Ardal O’Hanlon underplays beautifully, astutely rationing those blank looks at which he excels; Peter McDonald has just enough room to suggest that it is significant that barman Brendan is the only character without a story of his own. This is one of those productions where having little to say about it does not mean that it is undistinguished, but rather that not even a tiny false note is sounded in its hour and three-quarters; I sat compelled throughout.