The essence of great theatre is storytelling, and Conor McPherson's quietly haunting and haunted 1997 masterpiece distils it to its purest form. The play originally premiered at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs (temporarily relocated at the time to a reconfigured Ambassadors) in 1997 before transferring to the West End's Duke of York's and winning the Olivier for Best New Play.
Now it is back in the West End via another studio outing, that sees it transfer from the Donmar Warehouse where artistic director Josie Rourke staged it last year, and now becomes the first of her productions to move. And if there's inevitably a small loss of immediacy and intensity in a larger theatre, the storytelling is so gripping and truthfully told that it nevertheless resonates as movingly as ever.
McPherson's wounding tale of love and loss, fuelled by Guinness and whisky, has a highly charged depth of feeling that is articulated as much in gesture as it is in words, and Rourke's production trusts the value of stillness in its telling. As a motley crew of five variously disappointed and grieving people pass time and share stories in an Irish rural pub, we do nothing more than share it with them, as if eavesdroppers to their conversations. But isolated though they are in their lives, the act of sharing their stories draws them and us together in an act of complex complicity.
It is at once raw, aching, tender and exhilarating. While Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories returns to the Arts in February, McPherson has his characters relay some ghost stories of their own, before a visiting stranger, a woman who has relocated there from Dublin, quietens the room with the most shocking story of them all.
It would be a spoiler to give any of it away. The joy of it is the stealth and modesty with which it unfolds. And five quite wonderful actors lend each of the characters a fully inhabited life. It is fantastic to have Brian Cox return to the London stage (not to be confused, of course, with the television Professor and physicist of the same name, who is also making a filmed appearance in the West End's Spamalot as God) as the car mechanic and garage owner who is so at home in this pub that he helps himself to a drink and rings up his own purchase on the till. Cox has a crumpled authority that is spellbinding to watch.
He is matched in magnificence by Ardal O'Hanlon as Jim, who works with him; Risteárd Cooper as a fellow drinker; Peter McDonald as Brendan who runs the pub, and Dervla Kirwan as the woman who comes into their midst. They are a beautiful ensemble in a beautiful, bracing play. It is a slow-burner of an evening, but it produces a lasting flame.
"It works like a dream, shifting from glass-in-hand naturalism into chilling intimations of the supernatural."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
" ... every single performance makes you feel as if you've known these flawed, damaged and haunted people all your life."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
".... magnificent West End transfer of last year’s Donmar Warehouse sell-out hit ... Unmissable."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard