Theatre Review: The Weir - Progress Theatre, Reading

Set in rural Ireland, The Weir sees Progress Theatre transformed into a cosy Irish pub on a dark, blustery night. While outside is blowing a gale, landlord Brendan extends his usual welcome to Jack and Jim – his dedicated locals. The three friends discuss the rumours that surround the arrival of a mysterious Dubliner to the town – until she arrives at the pub with another of the locals.

What makes the production such a challenge is the depiction of everyday life - playful mockery, gambling tips and reminiscing about long departed friends and loved ones. At times grey, unexciting, bleak; at others comical or moving. Until a string of progressively harrowing and eerie stories unfolds.

Craig Daniels excels as landlord Brendan. An understated portrayal conveying joviality, warmth and unease. With the minimal of facial expression, his eyes consistently reveal genuine reactions. Compelling to watch, the character of Brendan is almost as much an observer of the ghost stories as the audience – blurring the lines between an on stage observer, and a member of the audience.

In direct contrast, the character of Finbar, played with effortless charm by Gareth Saunders, is larger than life. The self-professed local-boy-made-good sways between overconfidence and terror, as he holds court over the storytelling proceedings. Finbar’s reluctance to succumb to fear is like a rollercoaster of expression – a fantastic and highly effective performance.

Under Aiden Moran’s direction, the scene in which Finbar loses his cool particularly stands out. Tension builds as fear escalates, and tempers fly.

Anthony Travis plays the cantankerous, yet kind hearted, Jack. A brilliant portrayal with a sense of familiarity – you feel as though he’s someone you’ve known for years. In a particularly touching scene, Jack reminisces about decisions he’s regretted his whole life. The audience gets a glimpse through his tough exterior into the heart of a sad, lonely being – who feels as though he’s lost his goodness.

Kate Shaw delivers a wonderful performance as Valerie. Quietly reacting to the storytellers’ attempts to spook each other, she builds towards a spooky tale of her own. As Valerie describes why she moved away from Dublin, there are genuine emotional responses onstage – and a few misty eyes in the audience. It’s a pity that the sole female character is an observer for most of the play. Yet her quiet strength and determination are evident in this portrayal.

Rounding off the group of locals is the hapless Jim; an excellent interpretation by Christopher Hoult. Devoting much of his time to looking after his ailing mother, Jim appears vulnerable and introverted. In an unassuming performance, we see Jim as the only character who is willing, or able, to show how he is affected by one of the story’s most harrowing moments.

The level of thought that has gone into creating the authentic set and props is clear. Dated pictures of football teams adorn the walls, old fashioned ornaments and trinkets line the shelves and, of course, there’s the obligatory bottle of Guinness.

Exceptional acting and gritty realism combine to make a personal piece of theatre. And with the set closer to the audience than most other productions at Progress, the audience feel they’re part of the close-knit group of locals. As another audience member commented – “I feel like I should have had a pint.”

'The Weir', Monday 15th June to Saturday 20th June. Progress Theatre, Reading
Progress Theatre will be performing The Merry Wives of Windsor from 16 to 26 July as part of Reading Open Air theatre.
Progress Youth Theatre will be performing Gormenghast from 6 to 11 July at The Progress Theatre.

(c) 2015 Louise Quelch

Jack – Anthony Travis
Brendan – Craig Daniels
Jim – Christopher Hoult
Finbar – Gareth Saunders
Valerie – Kate Shaw

Playwright – Conor McPherson
Director – Aiden Moran
Assistant Direct – Alison Hill
Production Manager – Christine Moran
Stage Manager – Emma Walsh
Set Design – Aiden Moran
Set Construction & Painting – Jannika Arell, Craig Daniels, Rik Eke, Alison Hill, Christopher Hoult, Stuart McCubbin, Aiden Moran, Martin Noble, Stefano Pietrosanti, Gareth Saunders, Richard Saunders, Kate Shaw, Caroline Sketchley, Anthony Travis, Emma Walsh
Lighting Design – Martin Noble
Lighting Operation – Thomas Hall
Sound Design – Richard Saunders
Sound Operation – Carline Sketchley
Costumes – Alison Hill & cast
Props – Emma Walsh
Poster Design – Aiden Moran
Photography – Aiden Moran
Marketing and Publicity – Christopher Hoult, Christine Moran
Front of House Rota – Christine Moran
Programme Editor – Carole Brown

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