As her acclaimed production of Laura Wade’s Posh comes to the end of its run in the West End, Lyndsey Turner makes her Donmar directorial debut with a measured revival of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!
In the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg, Gar O’Donnell is fed up of his monotonous existence and yearns for a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. But before he sets off on this life-changing journey, he must say goodbye to the people he is leaving behind.
Though perhaps more important is Gar’s need to earn love – or even a small glimmer of recognition – from his distant, cold-hearted father who seems reluctant and uninterested in saying his own farewell.
Set in the home Gar shares with his father and loyal housekeeper Madge, Friel’s play is somewhat devoid of action. But what Turner’s production lacks in fast-paced drama, it makes up for in the deep complexities of its characters, intricately displaying the moods and feelings that are contained within Rob Howell’s imposing architectural set.
None more than Gar himself. So complex are the feelings pent up within the 25-year-old Irishman that two actors are needed to portray them, divided as he is into public and private versions of his personality. Paul Reid takes on the role of the former as the unsettled and reserved Gar who, though visible to all those around him, keeps his feelings in check, while Rory Keenan’s presence is an ethereal one, portraying the true voices niggling away in the young man’s troubled head.
Witty, flirtatious, sarcastic, insulting, aggressive and melodiously mirthful, Keenan metamorphoses his character into a myriad of emotions, radically flitting from frightening to hilarious, while that same element of surprise can also be seen in Valerie Lilley’s performance as the slightly stooping Madge who, from nowhere, propels flashes of sharp wit into an otherwise delicate portrayal of a woman who deserves so much more respect than she’s given credit for.
With more lights than a runway landing strip and shelves stacked as high as the ceiling, Howell’s impressive set reflects the towering ambitions and bright future that Gar sees before him. But though his outlook is positive, following a dramatic denouement created by light and sound team Tim Lutkin and Christopher Shutt, the audience is left wondering whether the Irishman’s life abroad will bring him any more happiness.