Last Updated on 10th September 2022
Mark Ludmon reviews Walking with Ghosts, written and performed by Gabriel Byrne, at London’s Apollo Theatre
Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts
Apollo Theatre, London
Gabriel Byrne has travelled the world as an actor in film and on stage but in his own show, Walking with Ghosts, he takes us back to his roots in Dublin for a candid and captivating piece of storytelling. Based on his memoir of the same name published in 2020, Byrne evokes his working-class family and community in the 1950s and 1960s, from his first days at school and sufferings at the hands of a sadistic teacher through first communion and family life to his early efforts to establish a career.
Directed by Lonny Price, Byrne’s delivery is restrained and conversational, bringing extra power to his retelling of some of the more horrifying events of his childhood including abuse at the hands of a priest. But he also sparkles when he recounts happier and sometimes hilarious incidents and on occasion brings the house down sharing some truly bad jokes.
For the most part, it is a personal memoir about an ordinary working-class Dublin childhood but it also serves up plenty for those interested in his acting. Byrne relives the excitement of his first visits to the cinema with his grandmother, instilling in him a love of film that fed into his later career choices. He also captures the joys of amateur dramatics which opened up for him a world where he found purpose and belonging. His early steps into professional acting, including a recurring role in long-running Irish soap The Riordans, also make for some delightful anecdotes.
Although Byrne has performed with many of the great names of theatre and screen, stagey anecdotes are relatively scarce and mostly included for their part in his more personal story. Welsh actor Richard Burton makes an appearance when the pair worked together on TV series Wagner in the 1980s but this segues into Byrne’s moving contemplation of Irish drinking culture and his own alcoholism as well as thoughts on fame.
Byrne’s writing has a distinctive lyrical Irish style, with its conjuring of ghosts drawing comparisons with James Joyce. Sinéad Diskin’s sound design immerses the audience in an evocative soundscape taking us to the streets and bars of Dublin. Alone on a nearly bare stage, Byrne is literally framed by designer Sinéad McKenna’s triple picture frames and dimly reflected on a cloudy mirrored backdrop. For nearly two hours (plus interval), Byrne proves himself to be a virtuoso but subtle storyteller, mixing humour and pathos, joy and sorrow in a mesmerising journey through the highs and lows of his early life.
Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts runs at London’s Apollo Theatre until 17 September 2022.