Why seeing is believing – Faith Healer at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Published in The Times, Tuesday January 20

Five Stars

The staging remains uniform throughout this brilliant revival of Brian Friel’s celebrated 1979 play. The dense series of monologues that simultaneously illuminate and obscure the life of Francis Hardy, an Irish faith healer, are performed against the backdrop of an austere hall filled with rows of empty chairs, the floor swept, the broom leaning against the wall. An entire evening of this might sound daunting, yet John Dove’s production contains all the suspenseful fascination of a thriller and features a trio of performances so detailed that each one radiates its own self-contained atmosphere.

In his shabby overcoat and with his hair Brylcreemed into submission, Sean O’Callaghan, the Irish actor, typifies the down-at-heel romance of Friel’s wandering healer, who runs through the list of Scottish and Welsh towns he once frequented like a fading pop star recalling his greatest hits. O’Callaghan shows us the self-loathing simmering beneath Hardy’s vanity while demonstrating that, while drink has diminished his talents, he can still hold a crowd. Revelling in his greatest triumphs, including the time he cured ten people in a Welsh village, O’Callaghan’s Hardy hugs his audience to him, his eyes darting between the circle and the stalls. As the house lights are left partially illuminated we feel almost as though we are part of the performance.

If Hardy embodies the archetype of the artist torn apart by his own capricious talent, the other two characters, Frank’s wife, Grace (Niamh McCann), and his cockney manager, Teddy (Patrick Driver), bring the play’s other major theme – love’s power to blind us to hurtful realities – into focus. Both Grace’s slow-burning account of her life with Frank and Driver’s bluff and haunted testimony feature bursts of honesty that gradually reveal Hardy, the object of their affection, as a monster, though each perspective is riddled with self-deceptions and inconsistencies.

While Driver’s is perhaps the most accomplished and compelling performance overall, all three actors demonstrate a remarkable proficiency for the complex music of Friel’s writing, while Dove allows just the right amount of silence in a play where what is stated is often less significant than what is left unsaid.

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to Feb 7