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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Veil


Do not waste your youth hemmed in on an abyss of fear. — Audelle
The Veil
Emily Taaffe as Hannah in the foreground. To the rear Ursula Jones as Grandie and Adrian Schiller as Audelle (Photo: Helen Warner)
Conor McPherson shot to fame with his 1997 play of Irish storytelling The Weir which transferred from the Royal Court to the West End and Broadway. Now at the National Theatre his gothic ghost story The Veil receives a big production directed by the playwright himself.

Set in a decaying Irish country house in Ireland in 1822 where the estate manager Mr Fingal (Peter McDonald) hasnít been paid by his employer for the last thirteen months, The Veil centres on the psychic abilities of the women of the family to see what the defrocked clergyman and spiritualist Reverend Berkley (Jim Norton) describes as those "caught between this world and the next."

Lady Madeleine Lambroke (Fenella Woolgar) is a widow, her husband having been found hanging from a bracket above the fireplace by their daughter Hannah (Emily Taaffe). Hannah is to be married to an English marquis who will rescue the estate by paying off the debts. The Reverend Berkeley and his friend the philosopher and opium addict Charles Audelle (Adrian Schiller) have travelled to Ireland to bring her back for her marriage. Making up three generations of Lambroke women is Maria Lambroke (Ursula Jones), known as Grandie, grandmother to Hannah and thought to be in her dotage and uncomprehending — until someone mentions cake when she perks up and heads off for the kitchen with her nose in the air.

The Reverend Berkeley and Audelle have travelled through the nearby town of Jamestown where families are starving. One talks about the shock of having a dead child thrust in his face. These are the tenants, who cannot pay their rent, living in houses that the estate cannot afford to repair.

I felt McPherson wasnít sure where he was going with this play. Is it a historical account of rural Ireland and negligent English landowners or a venture into the supernatural with at least one shockingly spooky moment or a study of the 19th century interest in the relationship between nature and the spirit? Is it a Chekhovian account of decline and longing or a melodrama? The rifle in the first act is usually a portent of a gunshot later. With the playwright directing there isnít the benefit of a second opinion to tighten the themes.

The set is very beautiful with its arches of decaying stonework looking into what was once an elegant and stately home. We can even see a sweeping staircase to one side. This is lit by candlelight adding to the atmosphere in the old house with subtle lighting by Neil Austin.

The performances are quite fine. Fenella Woolgar as Lady Madeleine is a mistress with feisty retorts that seem to come from a later century and Emily Taafe is a suitably disturbed Hannah especially after Audelle recklessly shares his laudanum with her. Jim Nortonís defrocked clergyman seems determined to rid Hannah of a troublesome spirit with a séance. Adrian Schillerís degenerate character is challenged with finding a supplier of his opium in rural Ireland. Peter McDonald is magnificent as ever as the estate manager with no income who gambles and drinks to drown his sorrows and misplaced affection.

The Veil is like opening a very beautifully wrapped present and finding what is inside is rather disappointing.

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The Veil
Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Starring: Peter McDonald, Fenella Woolgar, Jim Norton, Adrian Schiller, Emily Taaffe
With: Ursula Jones, Brid Brennan, Caoilfhionn Dunne
Designed by Rae Smith
Lighting: Neil Austin
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound: Paul Arditti
Movement: Jack Murphy
Fights: Kate Waters
Running time: Two hours 30minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 29th October 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th October 2011 performance at The Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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