We are in the cold, flat, empty land of the farthest West of Ireland. There is a howling wind. There is poverty and introspection on an agricultural scale. There is copious drink. There is a run-down pub. We are two counties and a hundred years removed from Synge’s emotionally bleak “Western World” but what blows in from the bog-sodden moorland here is not a Playboy, but a woman.

There is no shortage of attention to detail in this genuflectingly-staged revival of McPherson’s 1997 play, which had such an impressive debut at the Royal Court. Tom Scutt’s set captures the neglected small-town bar to the life, down to the dodgy spluttering beer tap and the packs of untipped cigarettes on the shelves. Neil Austin’s lighting design moulds both the shadows in which the spirits of the past can lurk and the warmth of the fire in which the characters shelter, and Ian Dickinson’s soundscape punctuates the stories and the silences with the subtle but constant presence of the weather.

On one level, this is a simple ghost story. Three customers and the barman, united in their loneliness, tell a series of overlapping tales to a newly-arrived and clearly more educated woman from Dublin. In trying to outdo each other in impressing her, they manage to frighten both the newcomer and themselves. Most excitingly, they populate the stories with copious gossipy reference to neighbours and friends: some living, some dead – which together promote an impression of a tightly-knit village-full of characters, belying the fact there’s only five in the cast.

On another level, it’s a tragedy wherein the singularity of unmarried men in a country in which “family” is so important is touchingly exposed. Not that the scripting, or Josie Rourke’s flinty direction, would have you see it as a tragedy since the dialogue is constantly bantering and sardonic, and the comic skills of actors like Ardal O’Hanlon and Brian Cox make you savour the richness of the language and the native humour at the heart of even the most morose Irishman.

Whilst applauding Cox, O’Hanlon and Dervla Kirwan, whose performance as Valerie is the pivot of the piece, there are at least equal contributions from Peter McDonald as the self-effacing barman Brendan, who appears to have no story of his own to tell, and Risteard Cooper as a quite remarkably real local-man-made-good named Finbar – who appears to have caught Valerie’s eye even though he’s the only man in the play to already be married.  Imported from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Cooper is a wonderful actor to watch, because any technique is invisible, at least in the way he inhabits this part. That he also manages to be a rugby correspondent for the Irish Times is further cause to celebrate his abilities.

Although the play draws together the strands of three supernatural fairy stories, what you carry away is the almost unspoken themes of lost love, family duty, and how a hasty decision in early life can colour a long and lonely middle age. It’s haunting, in every sense.

As with many Donmar productions, tickets are sold out before the reviews appear, but thanks to the Barclays sponsorship scheme, £10 front-row seats are released each week on Monday at 10am. Worth the perseverance.

Date reviewed: Friday 26th April 2013
Image © Helen Warner

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.