The New Vic opens its new season with an offering from the London Classic Theatre company. This excellent production company has in the recent past entertained audiences with light-hearted pieces of theatre like Absurd Person Singular and Same Time Next Year but this time has chosen the much darker but much-acclaimed drama Faith Healer by Irish playwright Brian Friel.
The drama tells the tale of Frank (Paul Carroll) who plays the title role of a man who tours the backwaters of Celtic Britain with his partner Grace (Gina Costigan) and Manager Teddy (Jonathan Ashley). The act never touches England – the people there would probably not be as susceptible to the “gift” – and avoid Frank’s homeland of Ireland. The decision to tour the Emerald Isle has dreadful consequences for the members of the cast.
Unusually for a modern audience, the story is delivered through four monologues – two from Frank and one each from the other characters. In Frank’s opening monologue we gain some sympathy for the man in front of us.
Frank is vague about where his talent came from and is aware that, like a poor internet connection, the ability to perform his act of healing can be erratic. He is even uncertain as to whether the majority who come to his meetings even want to be healed but rather would prefer to wallow in the hopelessness of their affliction.
Frank continues by giving his version of life on the road and his relationship with the other characters but doubts surface about the accuracy of his reminiscence. If he is unable to recall whether his long-time partner came from Scarborough or Knaresborough how can the audience have belief in his recollections of three key episodes – a miraculous mass healing in a rural village in Wales just before Christmas, the still-birth of his child in northern Scotland and a meeting with a wedding party in his native Ireland.
The sympathy for Frank is quickly challenged once Grace begins to speak. She has clearly been badly affected by her life with Frank who was getting through his problems with heavy doses of whisky. Grace remained with her partner despite a life of gruelling poverty and lovelessness and in the process became an outcast from her parents. Grace came from a well-to-do family and had qualified to be a solicitor but renounced it all. Her bleak monologue more than hints that tragedy is awaiting her.
Teddy offers some light-hearted relief for a shell-shocked audience. His manner of delivery gives a more optimistic view of life on the road and there is a joy in listening to his tales of managing speciality acts such as a bagpipe-playing whippet. He also gives his version of why he always played a record by Fred Astaire that is completely at odds to what the other characters say.
The light-heartedness lends more credence to Teddy’s memories. He tells the harrowing tale of the stillbirth, dismantles the sympathy for Frank and reveals Grace’s fate.
It is finally left to Frank to expand on the fateful meeting with the wedding party in a lounge bar in Ireland. But as with much of the drama, it is left to the audience-member to decide the final fate of the Faith Healer.
As with the majority of people, Frank’s recollections of events that happened many years ago are flawed. Full of half-truths, gaps and embellishments these memories can be challenged and altered by others who were present at the events. It is up to the listener to decide on what is the “true” legend.
Alongside the argument as to whether faith-healing is the act of a charlatan or a gift from a higher authority, this powerful piece of drama forces the audience to make its own decisions.
Director Michael Cabot has brought the best out of his actors. Each commands the stage when given their time in the spotlight and creates a dramatic atmosphere that is enhanced by a set that gives a nod to the three countries that are principal in the play.
This is not a cosy ride for those in the auditorium. With no interaction between the cast members and little in the way of physical action, the onlooker has to concentrate on the spoken word and the physical tics in order to pick up the nuances in the recollections. A challenging piece of theatre but a challenge that is very rewarding and thought-provoking.
The play has a running time of approximately 2 hours 40 minutes including interval and runs until 9th September when it embarks on a tour of the UK and Ireland