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A CurtainUp London Review
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
by Charlotte Loveridge
Frank McGuinness was inspired by his conversations with Keenan to write Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, a play which is heartrendingly compassionate, tenderly tragic but also uproariously funny. The scenario could so easily have been fodder for a cliché-ridden, crudely manipulative piece: an Irishman, Englishman and American overcome their cross-national tensions to form a close friendship under the appalling strain of captivity. However, McGuinness saves his play from the perils of stereotype with exceptional writing. Skilful yet moving, it seems so simple.
The play is expertly understated and colossally emotive themes are purged of all affectation. What remains is an essentially human drama. Crammed with compassion, the characters are realistically imperfect but still imbued with so much sympathy that it is impossible not to be enthralled by them. They are sometimes cruel to each other but this only convinces us of their normality and thus their accessibility. They just evince humanity.
It is the humour in the midst of such a harrowing experience, however, which makes this play so poignantly entertaining. Verbal wit is combined with physical, almost farcical, comedy. The play stresses how their imprisonment is not just confinement but also absolute exclusion from the rest of their lives. The hostages therefore try to compensate for this with lively, imaginative role-play. They pretend to shoot films, go to a bar, or roam abroad in a flying car. At another point, two of the characters impersonate rabbits but, contemptuously dissatisfied with the other's incompetence in bunny acting, they then parody the other's impression.
The unchanging scene reflects the unremitting squalor and monotony of the captivity. A single bulb harshly lights a room enclosed by thick, uncovered concrete walls. Rusty radiators provide the means for securing chains which bind the hostages. There is no window except for an unreachable tiny opening for an extractor fan.
The mundanity and the claustrophobia of the set-up, however, is matched by the energy and vitality of the performances. In Britain at least, the three members of the cast have celebrity status, but deservedly so. Each character has a very distinctive individuality without ever descending into caricature. Edward (Aiden Gillen) is volatile and angrily frustrated at his incarceration. His powerful personality veers between charisma and antagonism. Johnny Lee Miller's unostentatiously impressive performance is sympathetic and intelligent as the more stable, softer Adam. David Threlfall plays Michael, a university lecturer of Old and Middle English literature who can be, by his own admission, a 'sanctimonious prig'. Michael is quintessentially English and has lived the insular existence of an academic of an abstruse and archaic subject. The great strength of Threlfall's consummately idiosyncratic performance is its hilarity which is never alienating.
The three characters' interaction and the micropolitical dynamics between them really make this production. They snipe at each other with all the destructive ugliness of their ill-concealed fear and powerlessness, but their eventual sympathetic bond is truly life-affirming and embodies the totem-hero of the play: "God the Merciful, the Compassionate".
The plight of hostages has obvious relevance to current affairs today, but the play really does not need any such excuse to be revived. In fact, the greater theme of shared humanity struggling under adversity transcends any specific political issues. This is a worthy, expert production of a play which is tragic, comic and ultimately redemptive.
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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