Faith Healer, review of Brian Friel's drama at the Donmar Warehouse

  • Our critic's rating:
    Average press rating:
    Wednesday, June 29, 2016
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

     A stunning achievement for the Donmar.

    I typically run a mile from a one-person show. You're stuck with them for an hour or more -- like it or not. So I should be running three miles from Faith Healer, Brian Friel's 1979 play which is basically three one-person shows back-to-back. And then the first of those three people does a second monologue.

    But actually the cumulative weight of the storytelling here is quietly overwhelming. This is a memory play that replays the same events from the perspectives of each of its tellers. Topping and tailing the play is the title character: an Irish showman -- who may be shaman or charlatan -- who travels around Wales, Scotland and Ireland bringing a kind of hope to the hopeless, but himself full of grinding despair at the vagaries of his gift. Will lightning strike tonight -- or is he a fraud?

    There was that night, of course, when 10 people showed up at a hall in Wales -- and everyone left cured. But mostly there's a sad recognition that he's just trading in other people's misery. And his own, particularly a constantly argumentative, neglectful relationship with his wife. She has her own story to tell, and there's a painful recollection of giving birth to their stillborn child beside a roadside and burying him in a field.

    Only the spirited figure of his manager Teddy, who keeps the show on the road in every sense, offers a glimmer of hope here. There's a riveting honesty to the way they tell their stories -- but subtle variations in each version.

    It is performed with superlative,  desolate control by Stephen Dillane in the title role, with equally brilliant performances from Gina McKee as his wife and Ron Cook as the manager, who also has the play's few notes of humour.

    Director Lyndsey Turner and her designer Es Devlin give it a beautifully sparse production, with a striking effect of falling rain surrounding the stage between each scene. It's a stunning achievement for the Donmar, which has often staged Friel's work under its previous regimes before but here does the best production yet.

    What the Press Said...

    "Stephen Dillane's performance as Hardy is so understated that it's like watching a midge meander through the fog – his wavering memories are fascinating, but they don't have the whisky-soaked power you'd expect from a pig-headed alcoholic."
    Alice Saville for The Independent

    "Turner’s immaculate production gives each monologue a distinct setting and character linked, in Es Devlin’s design, by a prefatory curtain of rain."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "Friel’s plays are eloquently lyrical rather than packed with action, and Faith Healer is no exception — we’re told about events, not shown them."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    Independent -
      The Guardian

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