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Faith Healer review at the Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘stunning’

Stephen Dillane in Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson Stephen Dillane in Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson
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Brian Friel’s haunting memory play is quietly but persuasively phenomenal. It revolves around faith and healing, as its title suggests, but also about miracles and mistakes, the showbusiness of faith and the blind faith of putting on a show. The show man – or is it shaman or charlatan? – here is an Irish travelling healer, who travels around Scotland, Wales and Ireland dispensing a kind of hope to the hopeless, but secretly knowing that it rarely works.

It is constructed as a series of monologues that relay the same story – in the fashion of Rashomon – from the different perspectives of each of its tellers, including the healer himself, his wife and long-time manager. As such, action is all described, not shown; but the poetic grace and feeling of Friel’s script is achingly inhabited in the spellbinding intensity of the narrators. It becomes like three of the best one-person plays I’ve ever seen, performed back-to-back.

The play had a famously troubled birth: its original 1979 Broadway outing with the film actor James Mason ran for just 20 performances. But it has since acquired the sheen of a contemporary classic: done and redone in productions that have variously starred Patrick Magee, Helen Mirren, Ken Stott, Ian McDiarmid, Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones, among others, it now gets a cast to match any of those illustrious names in the superlative company of Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee and Ron Cook (the latter returning to the role of the manager, Teddy, that he previously played in a production in New Haven in 1994).

Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin boldly clear the clutter of cleverness that has become one of their collaborative signatures in shows such as Hamlet and Chimerica in London and Machinal in New York to offer a stark platform, bare for Dillane and sparsely furnished for McKee and Cook, that between scenes is completely surrounded by a wall of rain. Instead, with the anchoring shadows of Bruno Poet’s lighting, all attention is simply on the raw naturalism of the acting.

All the cast are returning Donmar alumni, and it shows: they are utterly comfortable in this space, even when the shifting grounds of their stories turn uncomfortable. Dillane’s Frank – perplexed, humbled and overwhelmed by the erratic nature of the gifts he may have – is poetic and powerful. Gina McKee brings a keen intelligence to the role of Frank’s wife, locked into an angry co-dependence with him. But best of all may be Ron Cook’s Teddy, providing the evening’s only laughs as he tells of some of the previous acts he has represented, but also full of humanity and humility.

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A quartet of interrelated monologues makes for a stunning evening's theatre