Faith Healer review – Lyric Hammersmith, London ★★★★★

Declan Conlon. Photo: Marc Brenner

Brian Friel’s mysterious 1979 masterpiece, Faith Healer, proves itself to be, …well, a masterpiece in Rachel O’Riordan’s wonderful production at the Lyric Hammersmith. Over the course of four monologues, three characters, Francis Hardy (Declan Conlon) an Irish faith healer touring the towns and villages of Wales and Scotland, his wife Grace Hardy (Justine Mitchell) and his Cockney manager, Teddy (Nick Holder), tell their versions of the events that led to one fateful night in Ballybeg, near Donegal Town in Ireland – and the resultant fallout – as Friel explores exile, homecoming, loss, grief and the shifting sands of time.

There are things that are agreed upon by all three: Francis curing ten people in a Methodist Church in Wales, the curing of a bent finger in a Ballybeg lounge bar, that they once visited the northerly town of Kinlochbervie in Scotland. These things are dwarfed by the instances where our unreliable narrators differ: whose idea was it to use a crackling record of Fred Astaire’s The Way You Look Tonight as mood music for Francis’s performances, whether it overcast or sunny in Kinlochbervie, who proposed their return to Ireland after 20 years of touring the other Celtic nations.

Justine Mitchell. Photo: Marc Brenner

Friel leads us to ask ourselves how much of these disparities are memories of the past being patched up with lost detail and how much of each story is being deliberately misconstrued, and for what reason. With each monologue, we are forced to reconsider the previous – the things we had established as fact no longer feel solid. The tonal shift in the second half as the comic Teddy bursts into life with his ‘dear hearts’ and ‘fantastic’ proclamations provides a welcome exhale following the intensity of Grace’s remembrances, including her own underwhelming homecoming to Knockmoyle in County Tyrone where Friel himself was born.

However, we are soon moving away from Teddy’s tale of variety and vaudeville show business and back to the business at hand – Teddy’s attempts to distract himself from the memories that haunt him can only last so long. And then there’s the ‘Fantastic’ Francis Hardy, filled with charm and charisma by a spellbinding Conlon who draws us in so completely with the near-poetry of Friel’s language. Meanwhile, Mitchell captures the internal contradiction of Grace who has been drained by Francis for his sustenance but requires him for her own and Holder provides Teddy with shades of light and increasing darkness.

Nick Holder. Photo: Marc Brenner

This is a play, and a production, that will reaffirm your faith in theatre as a storytelling medium. There are no tricks or gimmicks in O’Riordan’s production – Colin Richmond’s set is as sparse as the derelict halls the trio tour, Anna Clock’s sound design is economical, and Paul Keogan’s lighting adds a subtle translucent haze so that we seem to be peering into the past. They allow the language and the performances to do the heavy lifting – not that Friel makes it heavy work. Three people stand on a stage and one by one tell their story – in a period when theatre is full of stagecraft, how powerful it is, how radical, to tell a good story. As Teddy would say, ‘fantastic’.

Faith Healer is at Lyric Hammersmith, London until 13 April 2024