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When Conor McPherson’s brooding play premiered at the Royal Court in 2004 it felt like an empathetic beast: a study in grief and guilt, loneliness and longing. Director Nadia Fall’s revival (the first in London since its premiere) feels different. This is still a play about two profoundly lost men but the women in their lives – despite rarely appearing on stage – are more prominent, and it is their pain that begins to seep into the endless lonely silences.
Fall doesn’t force a feminist agenda but lets the two central characters, widower John and ex-priest turned therapist Ian, sink themselves. Brendan Coyle plays John, a rep for a catering supplier, as a middle-of-the-road man in a middle-of-the-road suit. He’s a bit cheeky and a bit broken, but basically seems one of the good guys.
Yet as John’s story unfolds, what starts as a counselling session starts to feel more like a confession. Flashes of anger flare up – towards his wife, his mistress, a sex worker … the (all-female) list continues. All these women’s stories are told only to embellish his own. John proudly describes his mistress’s looks as “top five” and when he mentions her miscarriage, it somehow becomes about his pain. When John suggests his dead wife might be haunting him so that she might “save him”, the sheer narcissism of it all takes the breath away.
Therapist Ian, played with intriguing ambiguity by Rory Keenan, is more disturbing still. When his fiancee (Michelle Fox) whirls in, demanding he return home to his family and baby, Ian speaks with a cool composure and stands by the window, bathed in an almost celestial light. There is a gentle grin stretched across his face, but an awful lot of rage, resentment and repression lurking beneath that glazed contentment.
The only drawback is that everything is played just a beat too slowly. John’s endless hesitations are so long and plentiful that conversation frequently almost grinds to a halt. There are also some clunky scene changes for designer Peter McKintosh’s dilapidated set, which provide us with a breather just when all that pain should be wrapping its way around us, and pulling tight.
At Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, until 23 October