Theatre reviews: Faith Healer | The King and I

George Costigan in Faith Healer
George Costigan in Faith Healer
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People live marginal lives for many reasons, of course, piecing out an existence on the edge of ordinary, settled society.  In Brian Friel’s mighty 1979 masterpiece Faith Healer, though, we meet three characters who live there by choice, because of love, passion and what one of them finally calls art.

Faith Healer, Pitlochry Festival Theatre *****

The King and I, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Frank Hardy is a faith healer, entirely at the mercy of his own increasingly unreliable gift, yet utterly driven in his need to carry on working and in his relative indifference to everything else. His wife Grace adores him, despite the fierce rows that mark their relationship; and his manager Teddy loves both of them with a career-wrecking, impoverishing passion that he cannot fully acknowledge even to himself. Through four magnificent linked monologues – the first and the last by Frank, the second and third by Grace and Teddy – Friel recounts how the three spend decades together, touring the broken-down village halls of Wales and western Scotland, never wishing to return to Frank and Gracie’s native Ireland. 

All four monologues tell the same story, and yet they diverge – Frank’s full of fantasy and self-deception, Grace’s of heartbreak and anger, Teddy’s of love, loss and bewilderment disguised as streetwise Cockney banter. 

All of this complexity is captured with a beautiful, measured brilliance in Elizabeth Newman’s new autumn production for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, set to tour to half a dozen theatres and halls across the Highlands after its Pitlochry run. 

George Costigan is a fascinating, clever and witty Frank, who still struggles a little to capture the sheer, fateful horror of what finally befalls him, on his long-delayed return to Ireland; Richard Standing is superb as Teddy, entertaining the audience with jokes that break the heart.

And Kirsty Stuart, as Grace, is simply beyond praise, in a performance that combines perfect, heart-rending intimacy with an emotional scale and technical brilliance capable of filling the largest theatre. The production – set on a single, bare village-hall stage – benefits from beautifully understated design, lighting and sound by Amanda Stoodley, Jeanine Byrne and Ben Occhipinti; and comes so close to perfection that audiences across the Highlands should flock to see it, as it comes briefly within touching distance of them.

If Faith Healer deals with wilfully marginal lives, the great 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I is very much about two powerful personalities – the Welsh governess Anna Leonowens and the dynamic, modernising King of Siam – both of whom believe that their world view represents the moral centre of the universe. Bartlett Sher’s 2016 Lincoln Centre production – now opening a UK-wide tour at the Playhouse – starts with a disturbingly Anna’s-eye view, as she and her son Louis are besieged on the Bangkok quayside by Siamese beggars; and with the magnificent, golden-voiced Annalene Beechey, as Anna, modelling a 40-year-old Margaret Thatcher in manner and speaking voice, the signs seem a shade worrying.

She soon meets her match, though, not only in Jose Llana’s impressive, complex King, but in Cezarah Bonner’s majestic Lady Thiang and Paulina Yeung’s brave, passionate Tuptim, who between them profoundly challenge both their own traditions and western assumptions of superiority. 

Musically and theatrically, the production is fabulously beautiful, with classics such as Hello Young Lovers and I Have Dreamed greeted with gasps and cheers of appreciation; and when the King and Anna finally swirl round Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous set in an ecstatic Shall We Dance, the audience seem set to raise the roof, in the first Playhouse standing ovation for a long time that belongs, spontaneously and directly, to the show itself, and not to the memory of some long-lost band or star, recaptured in tribute. Joyce McMillan

Faith Healer at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 3 November and on tour across the Highlands until 16 November, including Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 14-16. The King and I at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 26 October, and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 28 January to 8 February