Shining City, Royal Court London

When Irish eyes are weeping
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The Independent Culture

Monologue has always been the mode at which Conor McPherson excels. This is true not just of those plays of his that are unashamedly constructed as solo turns, such as St Nicholas, his hilarious and worryingly insightful look into the sick, cynical soul of a jaded theatre critic. No, even his ensemble pieces - such as the worldwide hit, The Weir - find sound dramatic reasons for letting characters head off into what might be termed social soliloquy (in the case of The Weir, this took the form of competitive storytelling in a pub, designed to impress and spook a young female newcomer).

Monologue has always been the mode at which Conor McPherson excels. This is true not just of those plays of his that are unashamedly constructed as solo turns, such as St Nicholas, his hilarious and worryingly insightful look into the sick, cynical soul of a jaded theatre critic. No, even his ensemble pieces - such as the worldwide hit, The Weir - find sound dramatic reasons for letting characters head off into what might be termed social soliloquy (in the case of The Weir, this took the form of competitive storytelling in a pub, designed to impress and spook a young female newcomer).

His new play, Shining City, recalls The Weir in two significant ways: its preoccupation with the effect of the dead on the living, and its technique of embedded monologue. The location is the Dublin office of a therapist, Ian, who is visited by John, a recently bereaved, fiftysomething sales rep. His wife died in a road accident, but John, who claims to have seen her ghost in their home, is haunted by the (from one perspective) irrational conviction that he drove her to her death.

A cynic might say that McPherson (who also directs) has made things easy for himself by choosing a setting that does not exactly stand in the way of long, barely interrupted confessional arias. A therapist's consulting-room is unlikely to resound with the ping-pong of rapid interchange or the clashing swords of an even-handed duel. A cynic would be only half-right, though, for the three encounters with John are intercut by two therapist-heal-thyself episodes, where we see ex-priest Ian (a fine, quietly uptight Michael McElhatton) relating (and not relating) to Neasa (Kathy Kiera Clarke), the young partner he is in the process of abandoning, and to Laurence (excellent Tom Jordan Murphy), a gay pick-up with a wonderfully uncomprehending sense of what therapy entails.

It's fair to say, however, that the rep's gabby self-revelations (which barely require a prompt from the therapist) are by far the most compelling stretches of the drama. This is partly thanks to a beautiful performance from Stanley Townsend, an endearing, shaggy bear of man with a superbly sonorous and sardonic delivery that you could listen to all night. His saga is of a marriage foundering on the rock of childlessness; of the spreading dry rot of marital incommunication; of a botched, embarrassing attempt at adultery, and farcical violence in a brothel. This is classic McPherson territory: the essential loneliness of the Irish male, who so often achieves emotional literacy only after the event; the fixation with the dead less the result of Catholic culture than an acknowledgment that the living were never given their due.

You could argue that the play invites us to take too sympathetic a view of John, and that this conflicts with its shrewd scepticism about a therapy culture that allows the bereaved husband to persist in his mistake of seeing the wife as a projection of his own problems, and not as an individual. It wasn't a ghost he saw, opines the counsellor, but it was a real experience: "It happened because you needed to experience it." I won't reveal how this opinion is eventually revised, but it happens so late that it feels like the dramaturgical equivalent of knocking on a door and then running away.

To 17 July (020-7565 5000)

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