The TheatreguideLondon Review
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Donmar Theatre Summer 2012
Brian Friel's gentle comedy-drama from 1964 is a small play with a small but valuable bit of truth to tell, and Lindsey Turner's excellent production captures all its fragile humour and pathos. Nothing very big happens, but what happens is real, and witnessing it is both enriching and entertaining.
Twenty-five year old Gar is preparing to leave his Irish village for the great adventure of a move to America, and he is overwhelmed by conflicting and confusing emotions.
Along with the inevitable mix of excitement and fear are the desire to make some last connection with his cold and distant father, the torch he's still carrying for the girl who said she loved him but married a better catch, his bond with his buddies, the awareness of how small and dead-end their lives are, and the knowledge that the family members he'll be joining in Pennsylvania are going to going to suck him into their own soap opera.
To dramatise this conflict Friel was one of the first to employ the many-times-imitated device of dividing the role of Gar between two actors, one playing his public self and the other, visible and audible only to his outer self and to us, his private thoughts.
Friel sometimes uses the device for humour, as when public Gar's rosary is counterpointed with private Gar's erotic fantasies, but primarily it is to make the lad's internal conflict visible. Private Gar can say out loud the things his public self can't, either comically, as when he openly ridicules things public Gar mustn't, or movingly, as when he begs his unhearing father to acknowledge him.
He frequently bucks up the public Gar's spirits when they flag, as as frequently bullies him out of backsliding. And in several particularly insightful and touching moments we realise that private Gar is just babbling, filling the boy's head with noise to block out dangerous or painful thoughts.
As the public Gar, Paul Reid succeeds in building a round and sympathetic character out of an essentially passive figure, while Rory Keenan has the more showy role as the hyperactive private Gar. But of course the two actors are really combining their forces to create a single character, the Gar whose strong inner self supports his occasionally wavering public face, and you are not likely to encounter such generous and mutually-supportive performances this year.
James Hayes as the father whose emotionless mask just cracks a tiny bit and Valerie Lilley as the obligatory dedicated-but-unappreciated housekeeper provide solid support.
So what does the play ultimately have to say? That a major event like leaving home forever is inevitably going to be emotionally confusing and painful, but what's more, it should be. The event deserves a lot of emotional weight, and Gar would be a lesser man if he did not carry this baggage on his journey.
This quiet little play and this sensitive production communicate that, amusingly and movingly, and are likely to linger in your thoughts as you go out into the summer night.
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