Paul Taylor raises a glass to the rare humanity of Conor McPherson's bar-room vision, `The Weir'
Arriving home from the Royal Court's main-stage transfer of Conor McPherson's superb The Weir, I switched on the television to discover David Mamet laying down the law about drama on Face to Face. People only talk, he declared, because they want something from someone. Well, this may be the case with the power battles in his own brilliant, attenuated world. But McPherson's play - mediating, with a generous supple warmth, between humour and tragedy, the comically small-minded and the painfully large-spirited - is a rich demonstration that Mamet's dictum is a partial truth only.

There would be a way of summarising The Weir that made it sound like the kind of male competition Mamet understands so well. The virtually men-only domain of a bleak Sligo pub - where the fact that the ladies' loo is bust is of little inconvenience to a clientele of ageing bachelors - is awoken from its sad, amiable torpor one dark windy night by the arrival of an attractive young Dublin woman, Valerie (excellent Julia Ford). She has just bought a house nearby from Finbar (Des McAleer), a middle-aged flash hotelier and son of the district, who wants to show her the local colour and (though there's no relationship and he's married) to show her off.

A bald resume would indicate that Finbar and the regulars strive to impress Valerie with mountingly disturbing (and self-revealing) ghost yarns and that she, in a sense, turns the tables on them with a story of deeply distressing personal loss, made all the more unbearable by (imagined?) spirit contact. But what makes The Weir a triumph for its 26-year-old author - and for Ian Rickson, who directs with such atmospheric intimacy and humane tact - are the things that stop one from making systematic judgements.

It's true that there is a needling tension between McAleer's swanking hotelier (the insecurity of whose ego is hinted at in his ghost story) and Jim Norton's consummately acted Jack, a silver-haired bachelor garage- owner and droll card who resents being condescended to as a curiosity for tourists. But a generous, disguised-as-an-insult joke on his part is able to defuse the situation so no one loses face. McPherson is not out to score points or to diminish anybody. With their stunted horizons, the men are indeed sad, but when Brendon Coyle's taciturn barman pours unfamiliar white wine for Valerie into a half-pint glass and holds it to the light as if waiting for it to form a head, it's the courtly consideration of the gesture as well as its naivety that hits you.

And Mamet's limited theory is beautifully belied by the final phrase in which Jack tells Valerie how, as a young man, he threw away his one chance of love. Oh, sure, since he's lonely and now a bit drunk, it does give him the chance to clutch her hand, but it's not just of himself he is thinking when, at some cost, he heaves this story out and Valerie, estranged from her husband in a remote new territory, knows that too.

To 28 March, Royal Court, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)

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