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Faith Healer at the Lyric Hammersmith review: riveting performances in a pitch-perfect revival

Declan Conlon in Faith Healer (Marc Brenner)
Declan Conlon in Faith Healer (Marc Brenner)

Three riveting performances anchor this revival of Brian Friel’s eloquent 1979 exploration of memory, love and belief.

In monologues, alcoholic faith healer Frank (Declan Conlon), his despairingly adoring wife Grace (Justine Mitchell) and his bluff, showman-like manager Teddy (Nick Holder) recall different versions of their final tour of rural postwar Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Rachel O’Riordan’s aching, unadorned production is drenched in regret and foreboding. Friel’s play is about the impossibility of ever really knowing another person; or, put another way, the gulf between what we want and what we get.

Frank despises himself as a charlatan even though some who come to his shows consider themselves cured, including an entire crowd of 10 in Wales.

He claims he and Grace are not married and that he wanted children: she recalls the humiliations of being his wife, and his absence when she delivers a stillborn child in the decrepit van they travel and sometimes sleep in.

Teddy wishes he were still working with his earlier acts, a pigeon charmer and a musical whippet, but clearly, bewilderedly, adores the couple.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

These three can’t agree and they can’t go home; Frank’s return to Ireland (specifically Ballybeg, the fictional town where Friel sets many of his plays) triggers the looming, inevitable tragedy.

A backdrop of cracked earth suggests the hardscrabble bleakness of their lives while Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight punctuates the action like an ironic earworm. The lighting is stark and brilliant.

Conlon’s Frank relates his tale in a laconic rumble with an entertainer’s sense of timing. Mitchell is wrenchingly sad as Grace until suddenly lit from within by a fond memory. Holder is a mix of amiable charm (“dear hearts”) and exasperation, but there’s desolation in the empty beer bottles he sends rattling into a wire bin.

Friel’s language is elegant even at its most bleak. “I felt the darts of his spittle on my face,” Grace says of Frank. Meanwhile he savours the words “mountebank” and “chicanery” applied to him and his trade.

The use of soliloquy is essential to the structure, though one misses the social texture of works like Aristocrats, Dancing at Lughnasa or The Home Place, each of which won Friel an Evening Standard Best Play Award.

O’Riordan’s perfectly-pitched production is the latest in a string of emotionally dense and thoughtful dramas she has programmed and/or helmed at the Lyric Hammersmith, making it one of the most interesting theatres in the capital right now.

Lyric Hammersmith, to April 13; book tickets here