An excellent ensemble do justice to contemporary classic The Weir (4 stars)

The Weir

Tragedy strikes in a quiet rural retreat

Much of the continued popularity of The Weir must come from the precise blending of the naturalistic observation of rural life and its restrained, tragic atmosphere: set over a single evening in an Irish pub, it traces the tensions between four middle-aged men exposed by the arrival of a female outsider. Capturing both the intrusion of urban change onto a settled, isolated community and unfolding the men's regrets and rivalries, it casts a sympathetic eye over their failures and thwarted ambition.

The naturalistic detail is evident in the recreation of the pub interior and the flow of the men's conversations: the woman, acting as both an audience to their stories and a provocation to their settled discomfort, offers her own chilling tale that draws the supernatural into the very real horror of loss, yet Conor McPherson's script is always understated, suggesting the depths of sadness that trouble the characters without indulging emotional extremes. The melancholic mood frames their exciting tales of fairies and ghosts, managing to evoke the past without wallowing in nostalgia.

While McPherson drew on the Irish tradition of storytelling, the breadth of the play's imagination conjures more abstract reflections on loneliness and male fragility: the three unmarried men are forced to confront their discomfort around women – often revealed by subtle gestures and tics – and question their mythologising of home: the woman's story itself an agonising expression of grief that they are incapable of processing. The Weir's status as a contemporary classic emerges from its respect for the history of theatre – it even conforms to Aristotle's unities of plot, location and time – and its incisive presentation of modern doubts and terror. The quality of the writing, filtered through this excellent ensemble cast, ensures that The Weir will remain in the repertoire for years to come.

Seen at King's Edinburgh (run ended). Now touring

The Weir

Conor McPherson's intimate ghost story is one of the finest plays of the past twenty years.