Reality and performance lie at the heart of this solid
production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s
Reality and performance lie at the heart of this solid production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.
First on stage is Sean O’Callaghan as Francis “Frank”Hardy, initially reciting –like some religious mantra –the place names of “all those dying Welsh villages” the three of them had visited over the years, setting up shop in the cheapest local halls Teddy could find. O’Callaghan certainly impresses; a large man, he appears worn by life yet not afraid to loom over the audience from the lip of the stage. Is Hardy genuinely gifted? Is he a charlatan? Wavering between “the absurd and the momentous”, even Hardy at times seems unsure.
The second monologue is from Niamh McCann’s Grace, taking place at least a year after what appears to be a catastrophic encounter in a small bar in Ballybeg –the imaginary small Irish town which has featured in more than a dozen of Friel’s plays. She too recites place-names as a mantra, but it’s a psychological tool to maintain emotional balance in a life all too obviously framed by medication – the success of her recovery determined by the quantity of hours in which she sleeps, drinks or smokes. She is, even as a widow, someone whose “instincts are wiser than her impulses”. McGann’s performance is tight, and superficially composed, but the hurt of the character can be seen as she seemingly unwittingly contradicts many of Hardy’s previous statements.
Following the interval, it’s time for us to meet the previously alluded-to Teddy, a flashy Cockney hustler with a heart of gold who, despite an innate tendency for showbiz exaggeration and flattery, is almost certainly the most reliable of our unreliable narrators. He knows how the most successful acts must have ambition, talent and a complete lack of intelligence; and how Hardy’s “brains castrated him”.
Patrick Driver revels in the character, yet also finds the heart of the man who, perhaps unwisely, broke his oft-repeated rule of “friends are friends, and work is work” when it came to Mr and Mrs Hardy. While his tall tale of a bagpipe-playing whippet (with possible homosexual tendencies) provokes genuine laughs, Driver can still turn emotionally on a shilling, delivering real anger and loss in a heartbeat.
The final word, of course, is given to Hardy, but it’s worth noting how all three characters appear within a somewhat spectral set dominated by the faith-healer’s advertising poster; thanks to subtle lighting by Tim Mascall, the somewhat clashing elements of home, pub and old church hall that Michael Taylor has created are emphasised appropriately during each of the monologues.
Overall, there is much to appreciate in John Dove’s production of this play, but Brian Friel’s decision to avoid direct interaction between the characters nevertheless harms the play’s pacing and effectiveness, which Dove and the cast don’t entirely succeed in overcoming.