Entertainment & Arts

Donmar's Faith Healer a 'celebration' of Brian Friel

Gina McKee Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption Gina McKee plays the Faith Healer's wife Grace

A revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse is a "celebration" of the playwright's life, actress Gina McKee said as the play opened to five star reviews.

The play is made up of four monologues - with the three characters only coming together at the end to take their bow, on the stark set designed by Es Devlin.

Shambolic faith healer Frank, played by Stephen Dillane, has been touring the villages of Wales, Ireland and Scotland for years with his wife Grace (McKee) and his manager Teddy (Ron Cook, returning to a role he last played 26 years ago), with limited success and funds.

Most of the time no actual healing takes place - but what actually has entailed depends on whose version of events you believe, with each character weaving a slightly different tale from the threads of their memory.

One critic even declared it as the "ideal post-Brexit play", because of its "themes of miracle cures, bitter exile and fallible memory".

"The brilliant thing about seeing any piece of work is how you bring your own interpretation of it," said McKee.

"One of the things which initially hooked me is how Brian explores how we use memory - how we use it to validate ourselves in the present, and to protect ourselves. That theme is something that really interested me."

Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones plays the role of the Faith Healer

Donmar Warehouse executive producer Kate Pakenham said Friel had approached director Lyndsey Turner back in 2014 to direct Faith Healer. It makes it the third play by the writer - who died in October - she has directed at the Donmar.

"It was a gift to Lyndsey and to the Donmar and so it was very special," Pakenham said.

"It's been very special to take on the responsibility of that gift and try to give a new production for a new generation."

She said it was "not a memorial performance", but a celebratory one, adding "there will be many other performances of Brian Friel's great works".

McKee added: "It's a celebration, pure and simple."

Cook said of reprising the role of Cockney Teddy, who provides some welcome moments of comedy in what is, at times, a heart-breaking play: "In my whole career, it's the only part which I've ever pursued and wanted to do again. And I wanted to do that because this is a great, great play."

Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption Ron Cook last played the role of Teddy 26 years ago

The Guardian's Michael Billington gave it five stars, saying it "contradicts our theatre's trend towards ever greater visual sophistication by asserting the power of the word".

He said McKee was "unforgettable" as Grace, adding: "More than ever, the play struck me as a masterpiece: One in which Friel wrestles with the artist's dependence on the unpredictability of inspiration."

Mark Shenton, in The Stage, also awarded Faith Healer five stars.

"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," he said. "It becomes like three of the best one-person plays I've ever seen, performed back-to-back."

The Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, complained the pace was "treacly", Dillane's delivery was "gluey" and McKee was "a bore" as Grace. He praised Cook however, and awarded it three stars.

The Arts Desk said it was "brilliantly acted" and "utterly compelling". Aleks Sierz said: "This revival is verbally hypnotic, emotionally intense and compellingly ambiguous. Plays rarely tell us so directly what it feels like to be human - this one does. And then some."

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