Review: Walking With Ghosts, Apollo Theatre ★★★★★


Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With Ghosts, directed by Lonny Price, arrives in London for a strictly limited season of just 14 performances. It comes on the back of successful runs in Dublin, Wexford and Edinburgh and ahead of a Broadway transfer. Somewhat surprisingly, it is Byrne’s West End debut at the age of 72.

Those arriving expecting tales of Byrne’s biggest cinematic hits like The Usual Suspects of Miller’s Crossing will find themselves leaving disappointed – this is much more, and much better, than a series of greatest hits anecdotes. Adapated from Byrne’s 2020 memoir of the same name, the play unpacks the people in his past – now ghosts in his memories – and the moments that shaped his life.

Byrne evokes a vivid image of the Dublin of his childhood and the characters contained within it – ‘characters’ both in the sense of the individuals within the play and the types of individuals they are, with Byrne comically mimicking them. There will be added value to Irish audience members; as someone from Ireland, not only can I see vividly the characters Byrne is creating on stage, I know them.

But Irishness will not be a barrier to London or Broadway audiences enjoying Byrne’s tales of his Dublin youth – after all, we all had to grow up. And, as Byrne grows, he struggles to find a place where he feels like he belongs, with a CV listed with failed career attempts; priesthood, plumbing, kitchen work and toilet attending all result in failure until he finds a profession where he feels accepted – acting.

It is strange, he notes, how memories work; you often recall small insignificant details of your life while struggling to recall the details of huge, life-altering occasions – he touches on both. Amongst the details of life as part of a family of six children in 1950’s and 60’s Dublin, with trips to buy a Holy Communion outfit with his mother and to the cinema with his Grandmother, there are recollections of working with Richard Burton, undergoing rehab for Alcohol addiction, and the sexual abuse he experienced in a Liverpool seminary in his teens. The memory of the latter only goes so far before being thrown into darkness but it is harrowing to see Byrne himself carefully recount the events that lead into the abyss.

It is not a perfect production; it is hard not to notice Byrne’s glances toward the autocues hidden upstage but given the play’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, an ultramarathon in monologue terms – and delivered by an actor into his eighth decade – we can forgive such a safety-net. Between the easy comedy and the haunting presence of the ghosts of Byrne’s past, Walking With Ghosts is a theatrical antidote to the world outside. As he sits alongside his grandmother, reacting with wonder to the film onscreen, a child again experiencing the magic of cinema for the first time, it is hard not to feel pure joy.

Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With Ghosts is at the Apollo Theatre, London until 17 September before a Broadway transfer

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim