Thursday, October 6

Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts – Apollo Theatre

It would be fair to say that my approach to Gabriel Byrne’s show was cautious and slightly disdainful. Reading from a best-selling memoir is de rigeur for a book launch, but is it really theatre? As someone with three Irish parents (don’t ask), my blood pulses with Celtic pride, but I’m wary of romantic stereotypes, fuelled by sentimental Americans or Irish hustlers looking to make an easy buck. Walking With Ghosts brings Hollywood dazzle to London’s West End, but is this A-list glitter a symptom of celebrity mania, filling theatres with gawping fanatics?

Gabriel Byrne has starred in more than 80 feature films and been directed by Ken Loach, David Cronenberg, the Coen Brothers and Wim Wenders. Those creative choices throughout his career suggest a thoughtful artist, rather than a red-carpet romper. 

He’s a formidable talent, who’s stormed the stage on Broadway and scored a Golden Globe for his role in the TV show In Treatment. On the night we attended, Richard E Grant, Emma Thompson and Graham Norton were in the house. It seems that Byrne has fans in high places and when the curtain went up, it became easy to see why. 

When it comes to storytelling, Byrne is a master. His personal history is rich in tragedy and texture, which he recalls with insight, lyricism and humour. He writes with poetic skill, decisive restraint and an obvious love of language. Walking With Ghosts was critically acclaimed as a book, but what this show delivers, is the thrill of literary talent, performed by the man who lived and wrote it, who happens to boast Shakespearean presence and a gift for comic timing. 

When he recalls his unemployed and broken father, reduced to walking the family dog as his only career, he notes that when walked by young Byrne, the canine always stopped at the local pub. It’s told as a quirky anecdote, with crowd-pleasing punch lines. The subtextual reality is that his father was drinking, while his mother worked long hours to feed the family. Byrne’s slight of hand is to make us laugh, while darkness lurks in the depths. It’s a brilliantly entertaining couple of hours, which has the power to haunt on reflection. 

I yearned for Byrne to go off script, to freestyle and bounce off the crowd, in the tradition of the best story tellers. It might be a tall order for a tightly produced show, but a tiny dose of chaos could make this feel a tad more unique. 

It’s a very simple set and the narrative is given emotional heft with superb sound design and composition from Sinéad Diskin. The sonic echoes of rowdy pub chatter, pop music and Dublin’s street traffic help create an imaginative landscape. Combined with Byrne’s evocative delivery, there’s no need for visual cues. This is a wily yarn, a chronicle of a life lived to the full, but peppered with pain. Is it theatre? Holy Mother of God, sure it is.

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 10th September 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★