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Theatre review: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

by
28 March 2024

Simon Walsh reviews the latest production of Friel’s Faith Healer

© marc brenner

Declan Conlon as Frank Hardy in Faith Healer at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Declan Conlon as Frank Hardy in Faith Healer at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

“ABERARDER, Aberayron, Llangranog, Llangurig . . .”: Brian Friel’s Faith Healer begins with an incantatory string of place names, sites of “kirks or meeting-houses or schools” where “F.H.” — Francis Hardy, he of the title — used to ply his trade. “The people we moved among were beyond that kind of celebration,” he says, referring to “relicts of abandoned rituals”, and different from relics. Four monologues, three characters — the apparent simplicity belies the complexity of everything.

Given its première in 1979, the piece was a sleeper hit and has enjoyed more success in the second half of its life. It is now considered among the best of Friel’s works and is frequently used by actors for auditions. It hints, also, at his two seminarian years as a young man in Maynooth. He did not go on to ordination, but religion never abandoned him. This porous work is shot through with questions of belief, identity, belonging — and Ireland, because Friel never ceased from exploring what it meant to be Irish, including its conflicted history and the Troubles.

Francis (also Frank) delivers the first and fourth monologues, explaining how he travelled around these rickety places in a rickety van to bring healing to remote village communities. With him were two other characters: Grace, his wife (or was she?), who speaks the second monologue, and Teddy, their manager-driver, a frustrated musical-hall act. The only way in which the characters interact is through what they tell of each other, and how their versions of the same stories differ.

The recollections certainly do vary, and deal with a handful of key events: parental deaths, a miscarriage, the final fatal attempt at faith healing in Ballybeg when they return to Ireland. Throughout, they speak of what they meant — or did not mean — to one another in their little trio.

As Frank, Declan Conlon has the right amount of charisma to beguile, undercut by his vulnerability and lack of credibility. At times, his Dublin brogue slides into a whisper. He is mesmerising.

Justine Mitchell’s jittery Grace is an obvious product of trauma. Yet, with gentle humour and fragility, she brings the audience with her through despair and pathos. Nick Holder as Teddy opens the second act. His cockney humour and wisecracks lighten the mood, not least with a bagpipe-playing-whippet story. But here, too, is a man of sorrows, all disappointment and frustration, seemingly in love with both Grace and Frank.

Friel’s masterful script is respected entirely by Rachel O’Riordan, whose direction allows for an origami-like unfolding and refolding with emotional energy always at the right pitch. Colin Richmond’s set and costumes are spot-on, suitably shabby and faithfully 1970s. Patricia Logue has done excellent work as voice and dialect coach. Paul Keogan’s lighting creates pools and shadows around the actors, at times elusive and confusing. At the end, Frank rushes downstage through the lights and up against the fourth wall, to his Calvary and a final breaking of the spell.

Intense and powerful, this breathtaking production of a brilliant play has a mercilessly short run.

 

Faith Healer is at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London W6, until 13 April. Box office: phone 020 8741 6850. lyric.co.uk

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