Josie rourke’s varied and rewarding first season at the donmar Warehouse comes to a close now with this strongly affecting revival by Lyndsey Turner of the play that put Brian Friel on the map back in 1964.
The piece explores traditional Irish themes – lack of opportunity, stultification, the desperate need to make a new life abroad braced against a sudden painful nostalgia for the existence about to be abandoned – as it follows 25-year old Gar O’donnell on the eve of his departure for Philadelphia from the rut of working in his widowed father’s general store.
The crucial twist that gives the play its tragicomic kick and its dramatic dynamism is that Gar is played by two actors in tandem who portray, respectively, his public and private selves. In Turner’s revival, the clean-cut, square-jawed Paul Reid as the former and the smaller, glintingly seditious (and slightly older-looking) Rory Keenan as his taunting, antic alter ego make a powerful double act.
This bifurcated approach to character fleshes out the ambivalence Gar feels about his forthcoming move and it highlights the agonising lack of communication between the son and his monosyllabic old father, marvellously played here by James hayes from whom an air of bleak loneliness seems to emanate like a damp chill.
The excellent Keenan as the private self turns his frustration at the emotional opacity of his father into wacky vaudeville, parodying the oldster’s mundane nightly rituals as a fashion show.
But Reid beautifully conveys Gar’s wary longing to ask this taciturn figure whether an idyllic day of closeness he remembers between the two of them in a blue boat when he was a child of 10 has any basis in fact rather than in wish-fulfilling fantasy. And Hayes gives you tiny heartbreaking hints of the affection for Gar that has never found a means of expression.
Valerie Lilley is superb as the laconic and stoical aged aunt who has been a mother to the boy and Turner’s vividly cast production moves with impressive fluency through the present-tense drama, flashbacks and re-enactments in this play about being in two minds.
To 22 September (0844 871 7624)