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Review: Faith Healer (Lyric Hammersmith)

Review by Daz Gale


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


The fantastic Francis Hardy returns to the London stage for one night only… well, one month only, as Brian Friel’s Faith Healer gets a new production at Lyric Hammersmith. Having last been seen during the dark days of 2020 where the Old Vic streamed a live performance from their closed theatre, London audiences finally get the chance to experience this acclaimed play in person – but would it be as fantastic as hoped or would it need a miracle?



Premiering in Boston in 1979, Faith Healer has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic countless times in the decades since, making it on to various lists of the best plays of all time.  It tells the story of Francis Hardy – a faith healer who trawls the villages of Wales and Scotland for one night only each time promising miracle cures for the sick and the suffering. Though his talents are questionable, his showmanship is anything but, and for one reason or another, sometimes a miracle happens. The play centres on Francis, his wife, Grace and stage manager, Teddy. Through each individual account, we piece together what transpired in key events through their lives, careers and what ultimately brought it to an end.

 

Brian Friel’s writing in Faith Healer has captivated audiences for 45 years now and it isn’t hard to see why. With the narrative style resigned to four monologues from the three aforementioned characters, it comes with a great deal of intrigue, dropping breadcrumbs as the story progresses. It is this slow-burning approach that adds to the allure of the story, as things suddenly become clearer with each passing monologue, though their own inconsistencies and differing ways of remembering the events still allow for a bit of interpretation and mystery over who is actually telling the truth. Though it is possibly quite confusing to begin with, Faith Healer is a show that requires your attention and ability to put the puzzle pieces together – if you do that, the end result is wholly satisfying.



With nothing but a single cast member at a time and a bare-bones set on stage, it takes some truly inspired and meticulous direction to lift the story in a sufficient way. Thankfully, Lyric Hammersmith’s Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan does this with ease. With a less is more approach, the fairly underplayed story, particularly in the first act, fills the story with mystery, working with the cast of three to ensure every facial expression, no matter how restrained, adds to the impact of the words. Colin Richmond’s minimalistic set features a backdrop slowly revealing itself as the events of the story also become clearer in a great parallel, while a single prop for each character be it a table, chair or drinks cabinet is an effective approach. Anna Clock’s sound design daringly allows for pure silence during the heart of each monologue with the ability to hear a pin drop in the Lyric audience, but adds in background noise and music as key events build up and transitions occur.

 

Three cast members convey the story, never sharing the stage throughout events and relying on their own abilities to maintain attention and truly connect with the audience. A huge test for any actor, particularly with each unforgiving monologue lasting at least 30 minutes. To say each of the three more than rise to the occasion would be an understatement, each adding their own distinctive and contrasting style to the others. Declan Colon bookends the play with two monologues at its start and conclusion as the titular Faith Healer, Francis Hardy, or Frank as he is referred to throughout. Having the unenviable task of having to kick off the first monologue, referencing many a thing that won’t become clear until much later in the show, he opts for an understated approach, fairly monotone for the first part, keeping a sense of calm with no emotion creeping in. In these well thought out choices, he ensures we are invested in the narrative with his own showmanship matching that of his character. When he returns to bring the story to a close, it is very much welcome, with his words and performance now having far more clarity after hearing from his wife and stage manager.



Justine Mitchell’s performance as Grace differs extremely from her husband with far more emotion and an erratic approach, changing the narrative style significantly. As we hear about her side of the story, she has an effortless ability to bring her words to life and elicit empathy from a still not completely understanding audience in a formidable performance. Act two is dominated by Nick Holder who takes a larger-than-life approach for stage manager Teddy. With more humour than we had been treated to in the first act, it feels like a completely different play at times but is refreshing in this respect, filling in gaps from Frank and Grace’s recollections while still adding elements of mystery. His charisma and ability to smile through the most troubling of situations allowed Holder a lot of wiggle room in his characterisation which led to, for me, the most riveting performance of the evening.

 

With intrigue and suspense, Faith Healer is a gripping albeit at times confusing play. Its demanding nature to make you work out what has been going on for yourself creates a thought-provoking piece which pays off eventually. With exceptional writing, a clever narrative style and three fantastic performances from its wonderful cast, this is a fitting production of a play that has been so acclaimed for decades now. When it came to the interval, I wasn’t sure which way this play was going to go for me personally as it had thus far raised more questions than it has answered, but I should have had faith as, like theatre at its finest is able to do, by the end I felt healed. Perhaps not quite miraculous but still a great act of showmanship in itself.



Faith Healer plays at Lyric Hammersmith until 13th April. Tickets from www.lyric.co.uk 

 

Photos by Marc Brenner

 

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