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August 1, 2012 5:22 pm
Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter refers to a figure “Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”. Pretty much every character in Brian Friel’s 1964 breakthrough play Philadelphia, Here I Come! is similarly nursing their loss, or losses. However, far from displaying them indulgently, they clasp them close and get on with unexceptional, unexciting life in the fictional County Donegal village of Ballybeg in which most of Friel’s dramas are set.
In the final hours before he emigrates to the City of Brotherly Love, Gar O’Donnell tries to connect – and paradoxically also to avoid connecting too closely – with various folk around him: his widowed father, who keeps the village’s general store; his well-off beloved, who married a doctor when Gar failed to summon up the nerve to ask for her hand; the village lads, all mouth and no trousers; and so on. We are given an insight into Gar’s head, and into his own insights about the others, by Friel’s device of splitting the character between two actors. Paul Reid’s Public Gar is polite, diffident and much less resolute than his Private self, whom Rory Keenan voices with torrents of cynicism and, just when you least expect it, the occasional heartbreaking monologue.
Lyndsey Turner’s revival is a fine piece of ensemble work. James Hayes as Gar’s father S.B. (Private Gar consistently refers to him as “Screwballs”), Laura Donnelly as the might-have-been Kate and, especially, Valerie Lilley as the O’Donnells’ housekeeper, Gar’s dead mother’s sister, all make their individual mark, but never bid for undue attention amid the big picture of small lives.
Rob Howell’s design is a beautiful impressionistic portmanteau affair which folds the store, living room and Gar’s bedroom all more or less into the same space. Astute casting of Irish actors and the dialect coaching of Tim Charrington mean not only that Friel’s natural ear for the rhythms and cadences of north-west Irish speech is respected, but even that the region’s medial “y” is deliciously audible when, for instance, Kate calls the protagonist “Gyar”. It is a poignant collective portrait of the impossibility of leaving behind one’s own past, nor of living in it. Josie Rourke’s programming in her first year at the Donmar continues to be impressive and stimulating.
Sponsored by Barclays, www.donmarwarehouse.com
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