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A CurtainUp Review
The Faith Healer

When did you know you were going to be a writer? The answer is I've no idea. Which of your plays is your favourite? None of them. Which of your stories? Most of them embarrass me. — Brian Friel in a self conducted interview for the BBC in 1972
At the invitation of the theatre director Tyrone Guthrie in 1963, Brian Friel spent half a year in Minneapolis in Minnesota where Guthrie was founding his new theatre. For six months Friel spent his days and evenings in the theatre, "literally skulking about in the gloom of the back seats" until a doorman challenged him. As he was trying to explain his function, one of the actors stepped in to rescue him with the words, "He's ok. He's an observer." As Friel later recalled, "that fortuitous christening gave me not only an identity but a dignity: an observer, part of the great communal effort, pass friend."

There is throughout Friel's work, a questioning, a modesty, that quality of not being sure who he is or what is doing there. So it is too with the faith healer, Frank Hardy (Ken Stott). He is not sure of his gift, whether he has a gift or whether he is a con man. His only certainty is when there will be no healing as he says, "Drunk or sober I always know, I always knew when nothing was going to happen." Friel's parallel theme in many of his plays and in Faith Healer is of an Irishman who having left his home is not sure where he now belongs. This introspection gives the audience a chance to step into the character's shoes and feel his doubts about his identity. Friel also reminds us that memory is not the same as truth as in many of his plays, the characters have differing memories of a shared event.

In Faith Healer we have four narratives, four monologues from three people, Frank Hardy, the healer, (Ken Stott), Grace (Geraldine James) his middle-class, solicitor wife or mistress, according to differing accounts, who gave up her way of life to be with him and Teddy (Ian McDiarmid), Frank's Cockney manager. Each account differs slightly from the others as Friel reminds us that the story is as much to do with the perception of the story teller as the actual events.

Frank Hardy tours the village halls of Scotland and Wales and England, visiting small villages for one night. His audience were "the crippled, the deaf and the barren". Grace tells of how she lived once, what she gave up to be with Frank, of how she lost her baby, stillborn while they were travelling in Scotland and of her subsequent breakdown. Frank's version is that she was barren. Teddy, the fly boy, wheeler dealer manager, in the lightest of comic touches gives us another slant on running the show and minding Frank and his consumption of alcohol.

The first and last accounts come from Ken Stott as Frank, his lilting Irish accent seducing us with a near litany, a hypnotic recital of place names Abergower, Aberfeldy, Inverary . . . Dunvegan, Dunblane. He is not sure of his own power, asking himself "Am I a man with a gift or am I a con man or somewhere between the two"? In his dark brown tweed suit he relates how he met Grace. It is a powerful performance from Stott. His impersonation of Teddy his manager is masterly, he has the accent to a "t".

Geraldine James' role is less satisfying, maybe her depression casts a shadow over her account. She too recites the names of the towns and the villages but her version is more relentless and less poetic. It is hard to see how the actor could have raised the performance because of its pessimistic and depressing content which dulls next to those of the two men. The big surprise of the evening is how Ian McDiarmid has reinvented himself as a fly boy. We are used to seeing his wispy white hair and beard and hearing that splendid theatrical voice in majestic roles but here he has dyed his hair copper brown, slicked it down with Brylcreem, given himself a ginger moustache, a bow tie and cultivated a voice straight out of Hackney Marshes. He is amazingly funny in the part as he candidly exposes both Frank and Grace and tells an amusing anecdote from the tour while he puts away several bottles of pale ale. The story of the bag pipe playing whippet has a surreal wit. Teddy's monologue is fast and furious, only the tale of the dead baby silences him. Finally, Frank once more, takes the stage as he describes his dreamlike journey back to Ireland and the fate that befalls him when he takes on a client whose friends will not accept failure. Like Christ he knows what his fate will be. This too is a familiar Friel theme of the journey of the Irish back to Ireland. Jonathan Kent's direction is secure, natural and unobtrusive . He and McDiarmid are giving up their artistic co-directorship of the Almeida shortly, but their partnership is well founded. There is little staging for little is needed. Frank tells his tale where he works, in a bare hall with some dirty windows and plain wooden chairs, only a yellowed poster on the wall. Grace and Teddy talk from their bedsits, Grace's lonely and solitary, Teddy's more welcoming and equipped with a fire and bottles of beer.

Faith Healer was written twenty years ago and in it we can see Brian Friel's heirs in the wonderful storytelling of Irish playwrights like Conor McPherson, Billy Roche and Mark O'Rowe. I went to Dominic Dromgoole's bookThe Full Room about contemporary playwrights to see what he had to say about Friel. "Brian Friel. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (Top Man.) "

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Faith Healer
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Jonathan Kent Starring: Ken Stott, Ian McDiarmid, Geraldine James
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound: John A Leonard
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 19th January 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 28th November 2001 performance at the Almeida

©Copyright 2002, Elyse Sommer.
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