The Guinness pump is on the fritz so garage-owner Jack is forced to grapple valiantly with the bottled stout. He’s one of a number of lonely souls who congregate nightly for a couple of pints and a ‘small one’ or two. Drinking with him is Brendan, the pub’s relatively young landlord, and Jim, the local handyman whose life revolves around his aging, fading Mammy. But the pattern of this particular evening is disrupted by the arrival of Finbar, a local businessman, who having flitted to the city, now sports a cream linen suit and an air of urban flash; he is accompanied by Valerie a “blow-in from Dublin” who has just bought a house in the area.
In an effort to appeal to this stranger in their midst, a rare female presence (the alarmed response when she requests a glass of white wine is one of the production’s funniest moments), the men start to tell stories, to conjure a landscape steeped in myth and memory. There is talk of fairy roads, of strange nocturnal knockings, of still, staring figures spotted on stairs or in graveyards. They each relate their own small encounter with the uncanny, moments – whether frozen or fevered – when they seemed to glimpse something beyond.
These are stories, one senses, that have been trotted out often before, fetched up on dark nights, spun out over a succession of glasses of stout. In many ways they’re fairly pedestrian, nothing to truly prickle the skin. The pleasure’s more in the telling than the tale.
While the men start out trying to charm Valerie, and maybe even to tease her a bit, after a while their stories become less about local ghosts and more revealing of themselves and their regrets, wants and losses. It’s a subtle shift, so when Valerie, buoyed by such talk, begins to tell her own harrowing tale, the delicate balance of things is upset as she careens into a place of true pain and heartbreak. It pulls all the men up short but it doesn’t entirely capsize the night, instead this interloper is gently enfolded into their small world.
Josie Rourke’s production is also a delicate thing, an environment in which any one false note would ring loud. The performances are all measured and knit well together. Ardal O’Hanlan’s slightly dim Jim conveys a kind of baggy sadness while Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie moves from nervy, girly outsider to centre of attention, without ever letting the character get eaten up by grief; her performance is anchored and steady. The play’s true masterstroke is in not letting Valerie’s moment of revelation crown the night, instead it comes full circle, letting Brian Cox’s craggy bachelor Jack weave the last story, describing one tiny act, one small gesture of kindness in a time when he thought he was lost, and a chance he let slide through his fingers years ago but which nags at him still, the ghost on his shoulder, the thing he will have to carry throughout his days. While his first story is told for show, this last one comes from some deeper place: he gives it to her.
Reviewed for Exeunt