fri 12/07/2024

Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Donmar Warehouse

Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Donmar Warehouse

Brian Friel’s breakout play flies – eventually

Rory Keenan and Paul Reid on Rob Howell's set for 'Philadelphia, Here I Come!'Johan Persson

Philadelphia, Here I Come! ends in its Donmar invocation with the roar of a plane taking off, which only amplifies one’s sense that the show has taken some while to take wing. Markedly better after the interval than during an abrasive first half, the director Lindsey Turner’s determinedly unsentimental take on Brian Friel’s breakthrough 1964 play comes at a price, and some may wonder whether the (very real) pay-off is worth the often snarky ride getting there.

The impulse behind Turner’s approach is in every way sound: to jettison the potential cuteness inherent in the play’s celebrated theatrical conceit, which is to present the restless 25-year-old Irishman at its core as a bifurcated self: the America-bound Gareth O’Donnell split, as it were, in two, so as to be seen in the round. And so we have Public Gar (Paul Reid), glimpsed in often in-drawn, pained contact with the mean-spirited rural Ireland that he is about to forsake – the play implies more or less forever – for Philadelphia, home to his long-expatriated aunt. (Friel, now 83, for his part stayed put in Ireland, where he remains easily his country's greatest living dramatist.) 

But we also have the more garrulous (and, here, unexpectedly camp) Private Gar (Rory Keenan), who very much goes to those places, psychologically and emotionally, that Public Gar keeps at bay. Unseen by the others though in every way evident to us, Gar’s inner self functions as a choric conscience or Fool. He’s there to push and prod the ambivalent Gar toward the poignant reckoning that gives the closing passages genuine force. (Pictured below, Paul Reid and Rory Keenan.)

And yet for the play to work at absolute full tilt, it is crucial to feel that the Gars are flip sides of the same coin, two complementary selves in gradually revealed psychic freefall. That symbiosis distinguished Jonathan Arun and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle as the two Gars in the play’s last major London revival, in 1992. And it’s what this latest production needs to find, lest we not dismiss the one Gar as blankly sullen, even smug, and the other as a sharp-tongued chatterbox who quickly wears us (if not his alter ego) out.

Keenan, in particular, could soften the quality of verbal attack that suggests Private Gar as a terrier forever snapping at Public Gar’s heels – and a showbiz-minded one, at that, given the ease with which he slips into a vaudevillian stance (jazz hands and all) that falls away near the end to lay bare the wounded, teary-eyed self just beneath. It’s not entirely the actor’s fault that one turns off to the character’s habit of contemptuously anticipating the remarks made by those in his midst; it’s a tired device. Reid, by contrast, is slow to register at all, so fully is one aware of Public Gar as an absent host at his own party: I don’t remember previously finding the lead roles as unbalanced as they seem here.

Thankfully, equilibrium is restored after the interval in tandem with several supporting turns. Appearing only in the first half as the (childless) relation who offers Gar an American home, Julia Swift makes it hard to grasp quite why it is that the lovesick Gar would throw in his trans-Atlantic lot with a borderline hysteric: yes, she’s Gar’s late mother’s sister, though I can’t imagine lasting five minutes in her company. But Valerie Lilley blossoms beautifully as the stalwart, slightly stooped housekeeper, Madge, who may in fact be Gar’s best and truest friend. As the shopkeeper/father whom Gar realises to his discomfort and shame that he really does not know, James Hayes fields an affecting 11th-hour moment of rumination, as if to make clear that for all their strained dinners together, this man, too, has an inner life.

A Donnar first-timer, Turner starts the second act with the entry from the rear of the stalls of Gar’s loutish mates, the lads swaggering toward the stage like some Irish backwater equivalent of the Oxford swells that populate the director's rightly lauded work on Posh. And the design is exceptionally beautiful, even by the lofty standards at this address. Rob Howell’s geometric set, all sharp angles with shelves of objects and bric-a-brac climbing the theatre’s defining back wall, neatly delineates Gar’s increasingly oppressive daily routine, and it is ravishingly lit by Tim Lutkin to illustrate both the theatricality, and the terror, of Gar’s life on the run: a man who in forsaking one home for another must face up to the fact that he can never escape himself.

For the play to work at absolute full tilt, it is crucial to feel that the Gars are flip sides of the same coin


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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