Review: Faith Healer Works Its Magic Power

Faith Healer, Donmar Warehouse ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 21 months ago
Review: Faith Healer Works Its Magic Power Faith Healer, Donmar Warehouse 4
Stephen Dillane in Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson.

"The Fantastic Frank Hardy. Faith Healer. One Night Only." So reads the poster for the ambivalent figure at the centre of Brian Friel's classic 1979 play. Travelling around remote villages of Wales and Scotland to perform in front of small audiences, the Irish healer claims to be able to cure the sick and disabled. Is he a miracle-worker or a mountebank? The genuineness of Frank's powers may be in doubt, but the magic of this classic piece of Irish dramatic storytelling shines through.

The brilliance of the play lies in its richly colloquial use of language and in its deceptively simple form: four separate though related monologues by three characters which provide different and sometimes conflicting versions of the same story line.

First, the world-weary yet driven Frank gives his account of being a self-exiled, itinerant faith healer who knows that he will only succeed with one in 10 cases. The loyal but depressed Grace — who turns out to be his wife not mistress, and also from Ireland not Yorkshire, as Frank claimed — shows the grief of having a stillborn baby. Frank's manager Teddy, despite warning against mixing friendship with professionalism, reveals his personal involvement in an unfolding tragedy, whose awful denouement/homecoming is narrated by the returning Frank.

Friel (who died aged 86 last year) provides us with a beautifully woven tapestry on the nature of hope, love, memory and loss. As the actors directly address the audience, we question which character is telling the truth, or if that is an illusion and the whole picture will always remain elusive.

Lyndsey Turner (who previously directed Friel's early play Philadelphia, Here We Come! and his version of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons at the Donmar) directs with restraint and subtlety, allowing the fragmented story to develop with increasing emotional force. Es Devlin's design features a stunning curtain of rain before each scene, as the location moves from the bare boards of an empty hall, to tiled kitchen and carpeted sitting room.

The cast give us delicately modulated performances. If Stephen Dillane's Frank deceives others, he also is in denial himself; more self-deprecating than self-mythologising, he is not so much an attention-seeking showman as an obsessive artist, or addict who is continually trying to reproduce his occasional perfect high. Gina McKee lends Grace a fragile pathos, having given up her stable, middle-class background for a life on the road where the future is uncertain. And as the boozing, garrulous Cockney Teddy, Ron Cook gets big laughs with his hilarious anecdotes of bizarre variety acts he has had on his books, while also suggesting how much he cares for this mismatched couple who were always more than just ordinary clients.

Faith Healer is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 20 August. Tickets £10–£40. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 01 July 2016