Did you hear the one about the three Irishmen who walk into a bar and bore each other witless for the rest of the evening? On the most superficial level, that’s what you get, in real time and with total realism, in Conor McPherson’s much admired play at the Donmar.

Set in the empty and superstitious ‘Western World’ of remotest rural Ireland, their stories acquire a greater folkloric and human resonance and you take them home with a complex set of thoughts about singularity, lost love, family duty and how one wrong decision can colour an entire lifetime.

McPherson’s work had a rapturous critical reception when premiered at the Royal Court in 1997 and has since acquired the kind of reverence usually reserved for deceased Irish dramatists or Brian Friel. Incoming artistic director of the Donmar Josie Rourke has already signed up his brand new play, The Night Alive, to follow The Weir from 13 June.

The tall tales are made more engaging by the effortless credibility of some fine acting. We might take the abilities of Dervla (Ballykissangel) Kirwan and Ardal (Father Ted) O’Hanlon for granted, and the near-legendary Brian Cox is unimpeachably good, but both Peter McDonald as the youngish bartender Brendan and Risteárd Cooper, imported from a string of successes at the Abbey Theatre Dublin to play the self-made man and small-town playboy Finbar, deliver characterisations of documentary precision and intense subtlety.

Cooper is doubly fascinating because he combines his acting career with being rugby correspondent of the Irish Times.

If you need to find a fault, they drink bucketloads of Guinness, Harp, Jameson — and Kirwan downs a whole pint of white wine and some brandy –yet no-one shows the least sign of inebriation and at least two of the characters drive home.

As they say in the west of Ireland “it’s the old dog for the hard road” and like quite a bit of the storytelling in ‘The Weir’ we have no idea what that means either. But it makes you think.

The Weir continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 8 June but all regular tickets are sold out online, call the box office for returns on 0844 871 7624. Thanks to sponsorship from Barclays, £10 front-row seats are released each Monday at 10am. Details on the ATG website.

Image by Helen Warner

Londonist Originally published on Londonist