Faith Healer, Lyric Hammersmith, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


Faith Healer

4 out of 5 stars

Haunting revival of Brian Friel’s masterpiece that shines new light on its title character


Time Out says

What a monumental work Brian Friel’s ‘Faith Healer’ is. The late Irish playwright’s interlocking series of soliloquies from 1979 has a weight and exactitude that makes it feel like it was precision etched in granite. It’s a rare play that reads almost as well as it performs. At the same time, it gives its cast of three a surprising amount of leeway to interpret: there are limits to what you can change about it, but the roles of the titular itinerant healer Frank Hardy, his wife Grace and his manager Teddy, are real gifts to performers.

Technically speaking the play was revived in London quite recently: during the pandemic the Old Vic staged a starry production to an empty theatre (and a webcam) with Michael Sheen as a flimflammy, vaudevillian Frank.

Declan Conlon takes a different tack in Rachel O’Riordan’s revival. His Hardy has the air of some rock-hewn biblical figure, ramrod straight and powerfully serious. He is perhaps not a likeable man; but his brutally honest account of his troubled life and strange gifts – he can, inexplicably, heal people, – is compelling and dignified.

Except was he being honest at all? Conlon’s air of plain-spoken seriousness means it’s a shock when his wife Grace (Justine Mitchell) offers a completely different take on the events Frank described. A picture is painted of Frank as a shifty, mercurial drunk. And yet this clearly isn’t the whole story either. People are drawn to him. And he can do things so extraordinary that it feels like none of the speakers can truly process them. 

Mitchell’s Grace is vulnerable, yes; bitter, perhaps; traumatised, definitely. She is not unreservedly against Frank, but the differences between her account and his are so shockingly different in places that it’s like a razorblade taken to the portrait he painted in his opening monologue.

There’s clearly more going on than ‘he said she said’. For starters, there’s another ‘he’ - Nick Holder’s Teddy, who changes the tone completely with his broad Cockney accent, comically melodramatic intonations and grandiloquent showbiz musings. His testimony backs up Grace more than Frank, but not wholly.

It remains a play of powerful ambiguity. Can Frank’s radically differing account of things really be entirely ascribed to gaslighting? Why is the most fantastical detail - Frank’s powers? - the only thing the three agree on? What is actually happening here, metaphysically speaking? Each monologue ends with the suggestion that Frank was murdered outside a pub in rural Ireland. The story is never finished but it seems distinctly possible that Frank is dead; is this his ghost pleading with us? His truthful memory of himself? An overtly literary construct from Friel?

A precise meaning is wilfully elusive: the programme notes suggest it might be about the co-dependency and mutual incomprehension between Britain and Ireland; I think perhaps it’s an allegory for the artistic process. It’s definitely a work about the strangeness of being human: that we can see reality differently to the person next to us, that things happen beyond our ability to explain them. And it’s also three sensationally good character studies.

O’Riordan’s production doesn’t reinvent the wheel because it’s not that sort of play: it belongs entirely to its writer. But Friel’s characters have a multitude of facets to be exposed each time it’s staged. It’s a play that will never be entirely mapped: O'Riordan's take feels pristine and ageless.


£10-£44. Runs 2hr 30min
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