Faith Healer, Almeida Theatre, London

Spellbinding solo turns add up to more than the sum of their parts
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When Ken Stott, Geraldine James and Ian McDiarmid take their bows at the end of this powerful revival of Faith Healer, it comes as a real shock to see the three of them standing together.

Their characters have spent the preceding two hours talking obsessively about each other but from within the solitary confinement of a succession of monologues.

It feels almost like a violation to catch this final glimpse of the actors released from their respective isolation wards. Brian Friel's 1979 play started the vogue for Irish dramas that are constructed from soliloquies, addressed directly to the audience. It is, in my view, still the greatest theatre piece ever written in this form. And in Jonathan Kent's production, we get just what is required: a series of spellbinding solo turns that add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

Though he was evidently feeling the strain of the first night, Ken Stott is magnetically morose and brooding as Frank Hardy, the sombre-suited Irish faith healer of the title who spent 20 years working in exile on the Celtic fringes, striving (sometimes successfully) to exercise a gift which he tormentedly can neither comprehend or control.

Rob Howell's set is like an austere, ghostly version of one of the halls where he performed and, during his monologues which open and close the proceedings, the play has the air of some spectral out-of-time gathering, a posthumous positively-last appearance.

We find Frank poised to meet a bloody date with destiny at the hands of his fellow countrymen. His inexorable progress to a special kind of homecoming is then suspended while we meet the two people whose lives were both wrecked and granted significance by contact with his dedicated and destructive single-mindedness.

As his disintegrating wife, Grace, Geraldine James poignantly struggles to maintain the fiction that she is getting over the terrible loss of him, intoning as a kind of sedation a litany of the Celtic place names on the old itinerary. Convivially addressing us all as "dear art", Ian McDiarmid is both hilarious and desperately sad as Teddy, Frank's chirpy Cockney manager, who plies us with raffish showbiz philosophy and tall tales of a temperamental dog act ("Ambition? I couldn't stop him rehearsing'') as he plies himself with bottle after bottle of beer. He provides the upbeat comic relief and then, terribly, plunges us into a deeper darkness than we had known before.

A reviewer once complained that the piece works just as well, if not better, on the page. But, as this production proves, the presence of the audience creates the atmosphere of a meeting where dangerous, unpredictable spirits maybe conjured. And on the first night, there was this added advantage. With so many critics in the place, the theatre did have an odd look of Lourdes.

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