Theatre review: Faith Healer, Edinburgh

WORK in this business for long enough, and you become a philosopher. So says Teddy the manager, one of the three characters whose intertwined monologues form Brian Friel’s great 1979 stage poem, now revived at the Lyceum in a rich and gripping production by John Dove.
A superb Sean OCallaghan plays Frank, the charismatic, fabulist faithhealer. Picture: Eoin CareyA superb Sean OCallaghan plays Frank, the charismatic, fabulist faithhealer. Picture: Eoin Carey
A superb Sean OCallaghan plays Frank, the charismatic, fabulist faithhealer. Picture: Eoin Carey

Faith Healer - Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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And in that sentence he goes to the heart of Friel’s play and its compassionate yet unrelenting exploration of how we human beings live with those aspects of our experience we can neither understand nor fully control.

As Teddy ruefully acknowledges, showbusiness success and charisma is one of those mysterious forces; and still natty in suit and waistcoat as he lives out his days in a west London bedsit, he has a fund of tales about old variety acts – performing dogs, pigeons, their handlers – to prove his point.

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At the point where showbusiness connects with faith and the idea of miracle, though, the uncertainties become more tragic than comic, far harder to bear. And so it is that the central unresolved story of Teddy’s life is the one involving the faith healer, Frank Hardy, and his wife Grace and of how, over 20 years or more of relentless, squalid, poverty-stricken touring through the small towns of Scotland and Wales, all three of them remained trapped in the force-field of Frank’s strange, unpredictable gift.

So we see Frank, superbly played here by a shabby and charismatic Sean O’Callaghan, a fabulist and self-reinventor who introduces his Irish wife as his English mistress, and who describes her as barren when she has endured miscarriages and borne him a still-born son; but who is also totally in the grip of his own gift, alternately tortured and fulfilled by it, even when it leads him to his death.

We see Grace, the daughter of a wealthy Irish judge, who “ran away with a mountebank” because she loved him, inexplicably and absolutely; in Niamh McCann’s beautiful performance, the final sequence of her monologue, in which she exposes the emptiness of her attempt to live on without Frank, rends the heart.

And we see Patrick Driver’s dapper, beautifully-pitched Teddy, devoted to Frank, hopelessly in love with Grace until that final, fatal night in Ireland when – in a last act of healing – Frank sets Teddy free from the pain of unrequited love.

There’s no plumbing all the depths of human experience, myth-making and longing touched on by Friel in this great poem; nor will everyone rejoice in a play that is not so much a play as a sustained ritual of modern storytelling, pushed by John Dove to the very edge of the Lyceum stage, so that the characters seem within touching distance.

Yet it’s enough to say, maybe, that every man or woman in the audience will feel, at some point, that this story has been written for and about him, or her; and that for two hours and more, Friel’s Faith Healer takes us into a different, spellbinding and yet strangely familiar world – a 1970s Britain that centres not on London, but on the muddy field outside Kinlochbervie where Frank and Grace’s child is buried, and a place where miracles are still possible, but come at a terrible, relentless price.

Seen on 14.01.15