Theatre review: The Weir | The Sound of Music | Party Politics

Sean Murray (Jack), John O Dowd (Jim), Sam O Mahony (Brendan), Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie) and Louis Dempsey (Finbar) in The Weir
Sean Murray (Jack), John O Dowd (Jim), Sam O Mahony (Brendan), Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie) and Louis Dempsey (Finbar) in The Weir
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THE idea of the supernatural is as old as humanity itself; and the genius of Conor McPherson’s great 1997 play The Weir is that it captures that unique human moment when we tremble on the brink between the ordinary world and the uncanny, as well as hinting that it’s our struggle with the awareness of death that often propels us towards the idea of another world, however chilling.

The structure of the play is almost breathtakingly simple. In a small rural pub, somewhere in the changing Ireland of the early 1990s, the young landlord Brendan is shooting the breeze with regular customer Jack, a local bachelor. They are joined by Jack’s old friend Jim; and then by local-lad-made-good Finbar, now an estate agent, and his latest client Valerie, who has just moved down from Dublin. Jack recalls that according to local legend, Valerie’s house sits across an old “fairy road”; and then one story of the uncanny follows another, until Valerie tells her climactic tale, one of unbearable human loss, followed by a cruel, unforgettable intimation of a little spirit not at rest, but lost, and in pain.

Lucy O'Byrne rivals the young Julie Andrews in the luminous energy of her performance

Lucy O'Byrne rivals the young Julie Andrews in the luminous energy of her performance

For all its apparent simplicity, The Weir is not really a naturalistic drama; it’s rather a series of gentle spoken arias, each with its own music, which has to be sung out to the audience. And as so often, with this play, not all of the actors in Adele Jones’s staging for English Touring Theatre understand that essential quality of the text; so that large sections of the audience at the King’s are constantly distracted by having to strain to hear their words. Yet Macpherson’s play is such a mighty piece of writing, and so profoundly moving, that even under these conditions it becomes irresistible; so that when Jack, Valerie and Brendan finally head out into the night, our hearts go with them, in their timeless struggle to survive grief, and to weave it into some kind of joy and meaning.

There’s little grief in Rodgers And Hammerstein’s gloriously upbeat 1959 musical The Sound Of Music; but there is plenty of danger, and an imminent political threat, which only adds depth to its glowing, joyful surface. Bill Kenwright’s touring production – back at the Playhouse this week – is in many ways a faithful re-creation of the 1965 film experience, with the gorgeous Lucy O’Byrne, as junior nun turned governess Maria, rivalling the young Julie Andrews in the luminous energy of her performance, and the stunning beauty of her voice. Some of the other leading performers are a little less impressive, in both singing and acting skills. Yet O’Byrne’s rapport with the brilliant young team playing the seven Von Trapp children makes this generous, elegantly-staged show a joy to watch; and allows plenty of space for the sheer narrative power of this story of love, fate, and an Austria on the brink of Nazi takeover, told through the song-making genius of what may be the world’s greatest ever musical writing team.

Perhaps if she had six brothers and sisters, the life of the six-year-old girl at the centre of Lorna Martin’s first play for A Play A Pie And A Pint would be less troubled by the neuroses of her mother Leanne, the sole speaker in this witty and impressive debut monologue. In these times, though, small families are the norm; and the entire energy of stay-at-home Mum Leanne is focused, as the play begins, on the terrible truth that her only child Nina has not been invited to the lavish birthday party of one of the most upmarket girls in her class. At first, Leanne’s concerns seem like the normal stuff of pushy-mum comedy, as she searches pockets and schoolbags for the missing invitation.

The play’s trick, though, is to move out beyond the bounds of ordinary doting motherhood into the wilder shores of ego-driven maternal madness, as Leanne’s schemes for getting her daughter to the party become ever more elaborate, weird and damaging. And with the brilliant Sally Reid in top form as the increasingly monstrous Leanne, the play spirals to a horrifying climax; one that wins roars of applause from the audience, and reveals Lorna Martin as a playwright of promise, with a fine feeling for narrative structure, and a serious sense of fun.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

The Weir and The Sound of Music, final performances today. Party Politics at Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, and at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 27 February-3 March.