The only theatre worth spending a night on is the kind that takes you out of yourself to somewhere else – with other people. This modest 1997 play by Conor McPherson, the thinking man’s Martin McDonagh, spends its time in a rural Irish boozer, passing banter and ghost stories with four ordinary blokes and a bird.
But it’s also a bright little portal to the kind of eternity drunks see in the bottom of a whisky glass: a muddled soulful place where hot words fade fast, all loves are lost and you huddle round the fire to keep out the endless night.
It’s not all poteen and yarns about dead kiddies, mind. Apart from its hammy start, Josie Rourke’s Donmar production has a lovely, genuine way of finding the comedy in that half full, half empty glass.
Often, lazy writers and actors get cheap metropolitan thrills by sneering at yokels. Not in this local. The cast, led by the superb Brian Cox as a compassionate old loner, taps into the unfailing generosity of McPherson’s play. Even unscripted moments – like the one where Peter McDonald’s barman meticulously pours out half a pint of ancient white wine for his surprise female guest – are funny because they’re taken so seriously.
It’s what doesn’t happen that speaks volumes, and sets this quiet play apart from the violent new myths created by the likes of McDonagh and Brian Friel in Ireland’s ’90s dramatic renaissance. Everyone fancies Dervla Kirwan’s mysterious Valerie, down from Dublin – but no-one has a crack. The three bachelors who never left town resent the local linen-suited slicker Finbar (Risteard Cooper) – but no-one actually offs him.
The thing that binds these ragtaggle characters together – and holds this play back from the corny snogs and fisticuffs of a million other one-room dramas – is love. It’s not romantic blarney. But it’s there: in the dogged affection that this unassumingly brilliant playwright has for the people he writes; and the sense of grace and even benediction that settles on the end of their evening, when everyone, no matter how drunk or gripey or tragic their stories are, look their fellow creatures in the eye and feel sorry for their loss.
By Caroline McGinn