Following in the footsteps of the likes of David Suchet and Ian McKellen, celebrated Irish actor Gabriel Byrne brings his memoir, Walking With Ghosts, to the stage. This brief West End run comes off the back off an engagement at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre earlier this year, and a stint on Broadway will follow next month.
Much of the focus of this production, elegantly directed by Lonny Price, is how Byrne found his way into the acting game and the struggles he faced along the way. Coming from a working class family on the outskirts of Dublin, this isn’t a path that he or his family anticipated; he has early memories of wanting to make people laugh, thinking that this would make them like him, and buying a book of 1000 jokes – though at that point, being looked at always made him blush. The “wax flesh” of a nun’s hand (and their accompanying smell of carbolic soap) ultimately didn’t put him off the idea of eventually entering the seminary in England, however a shocking experience robbed him of his faith and he returned home without a purpose. Thanks to his grandmother he had long loved the cinema, so after muddling along with a series of odd jobs (including as a terrible plumbing apprentice) he took a friend’s advice and joined an am-dram group – something he knows changed his life completely, and for the better.
It’s become a bit of a cliché to daub the Irish as natural storytellers, but clichés clearly originate from the truth; Gabriel Byrne is part of a long line of Irish actors who know a good story and, most importantly, how to tell it. As you might expect from the title, there is a common theme throughout the show about the various ghosts he’s encountered & picked up during his life, though the show itself progresses in a more episodic format – several stories are told in each act, separated by a fade to black and some music or sound effects appropriate to the incoming tale. This elevates the show to something fittingly theatrical, whilst giving both Byrne and the audience a bit of a breather.
This is incredibly well-deserved, given the 2.5-hour running time (including an interval, of course) – it’s rare for a solo show, whatever the style or topic, to have this much stage time. Byrne has the audience gripped throughout, with vivid & evocative descriptions of life in Ireland often inducing fits of laughter, as well as some more sombre moments. He sets the tone perfectly, navigating his way between hilarity and solemnity with ease; this is a real skill, and demonstrates that he’s got this all down to a fine art.
This is a real treat of a show; it could so easily have teetered into vanity project territory, but it’s a testament to Byrne’s creative flair (and seemingly natural ability to build an instant rapport with his audience) that it traverses the gap between ordinary and extraordinary. It’s certainly not something that just any actor could achieve, so make the most of this special production while you can.
My verdict? A truly special show, written & performed by a naturally gifted storyteller – Gabriel Byrne is a magnetic presence.
Walking With Ghosts runs at the Apollo Theatre until 17 September 2022 – tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the Broadway transfer can be found on the official website.