An Irishman, an Irishman and an Irishman walked into an (Irish) bar and told some ghost stories. A woman joined them and shared one hell of a horror story of her own. They all got the shivers and they all laughed. In turn, each of the Irish men whispered, ‘I am lonely’. These frightened confessions were by far the scariest stories of the night.
It might not take long to summarise Conor McPherson’s play, but this is still a beast of a show. What gentle, funny, moving theatre! The dialogue is exquisite. It hums, swells, soars, crackles and whispers. The characters are ordinary – yet somehow dazzling in their ordinariness. And the structure is sublime. McPherson writes plays that feel simple but are tied together with such skill, the themes as delicate as silk, lightly binding everything together but never squeezing too tight.
The characters develop as deftly as the atmosphere, which is initially light-hearted and bolshy but ultimately quiet, honest and raw. Barman Brendan (Peter McDonald) and Jack (Brian Cox) kick things off with deceptive ease. They play out their tired yet entertaining routine, deliberating over drinks they know they will have, gossiping about locals they rarely see and dismissing a life of domestic bliss they will never know.
Local handyman Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) joins them and he too is living a life of blank pages, holed away with his ill mother who point blank refuses to die. Their easy conversation – which still has thorns thanks to Jack’s spiky outbursts – is ruptured by the arrival of local businessman, Finbar (Risteard Cooper). He has brought along Valerie (Dervla Kirwan), new to the town and its idiosyncrasies. The pub morphs with Valerie’s arrival. The space seems to contract as the men jostle about for position, unsure of where to sit or stand.
And then the horror stories begin. Perhaps there could’ve been a touch more malice to them; director Josie Rourke teases out some bruising banter but the stories and the storytellers never truly threaten. We feel a touch too safe in their company and there’s a whiff of the boy scouts to the ghost stories they tell. For all the shocks and suspense there is comfort in the whole process - not unlike the flickering camp-fire that warms us, as we spin our spooky tales.
Despite the slightly soft-edge to these ghost-stories, they still fill the space beautifully. The whole theatre shrinks and we are drawn closer and closer, drinking and laughing and gasping with the characters on-stage. Dervla Kirwan is an intriguing, baffling presence as newcomer Valerie. She exists on a different emotional plain from everyone else. She examines the men with such a sad intensity, looking for answers in their faces. When the time comes for Valerie to tell her own, deeply personal horror story, it is as she has absorbed all the men’s fear and is releasing it in one almighty exhalation.
It is quite something to see the men’s appearance change with Valerie’s haunting confession. They transform from bragging boys to haggard men, their faces etched with sadness and shame. Brian Cox’s transformation is particularly striking. His Jack is initially pumped full of bravado; he moves and speaks with the type of insistent swagger, which stinks of self-doubt. But after Valerie’s revelation, Jack drops his performance. His final speech, in which he recalls losing the love of his life, cuts deep. Simple phrases hang heavy with meaning; ‘I just…left her out.’ A lost love, McPherson whispers, can make ghosts of us all.