Reviewed by Lee Bemrose
I love and embrace my ignorance; to the best of my knowledge I was not aware of the existence of the Irish playwright Brian Friel. This is excellent, because after seeing the very fine Faith Healer, I now have another 30 or so plays to experience by this much lauded, very famous Irish recluse. In short, I loved everything about Faith Healer, a play as modest, inventive and intriguing as its author appears to have been.
Colin Friels plays the eponymous faith healer of the title. His is the first of four monologues looking back into the past. He looks back at his life as an itinerant faith healer traveling through small villages in Wales and Scotland healing the ill and the damaged with varying degrees of success. He is Frank Hardy and he comes across as now wistful, a once likeable rogue with a strange talent he didn't quite understand and which never delivered its full potential. He comes across as a worn-out, threadbare showman who clearly thought he was always destined for greatness. It's basically a personal reminiscence about his glory days as a faith healer (not so glorious, in reality, and he knows it), as well as his relationships with his partner Grace and his cockney manager Teddy.
Colin Friels is in fine form here. Right from the opening, lilting brogue delivery, Friels draws you into his sepia toned past. It's been a past of ups and downs, of moments both sad and shining. It's a masterful portrayal of a basically well-meaning man who has lived a life of unrealised potential, of someone who, looking back, is intrigued by how things worked out the way they did. It was a flawless and engaging performance.
Alison Whyte as Grace was equally compelling in the next monologue. Totally different character, same compelling stage presence, and exact same story. But this is the genius of the writing; it's also a very different story. Grace's version of events are very different to those of Frank's account. Frank, himself, as Grace tells it, is a different character. Not completely; she acknowledges that she fell for the charisma of the showman too, but she reveals that all was not as it seems. There are unexpected laughs, as there were in the opening section, but there is also much sadness as Grace, too, looks back at how her life turned out. The essence of her past with Frank is the same, it's just different.
The third monologue is by Paul Blackwell as Frank's traveling manager Teddy. There is much more humour in this section as this larger than life character gives his version of events. By this time you think that perhaps he will represent Truth, and maybe he does. Maybe his is an impartial account of events. However, the whole point of the play seems to be that perhaps we use memory to cope. Perhaps we unintentionally change things to help us survive, so in fact is Teddy's memory to be relied upon?
Colin Friels returns for the closing monologue after this largely comic, though also melancholic section, which seems fitting, given that his character is the centre-piece of the story. Not all is spelled out, which ensures that the play lingers in your mind.
Faith Healer really is wonderful writing, such beautifully engaging writing rich with all that it means to be human, with our hopes and our dreams and our frustrations. It's such good story telling that it needs a minimal stage design, in this case a few chairs a backdrop of a stormy sky with ever-changing lighting and a tattered banner. Director Judy Davis has done well to keep things minimal and let these very fine actors do their thing, which is to draw you into their characters' world for a couple of beautifully engaging hours.
At Southbank Theatre until March 4