Theatre Review: Molly Sweeney, Print Room, London


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The Independent Culture

Can you say of a face that it is “bunched” with artless merriment in the way that a fist can be said to be bunched in anger or frustration? You'd swear that that perception was permissible if you'd seen the concertedly beaming countenance of Dorothy Duffy as she sits and gently rocks on the rope swing that hangs from a barren tree Abigail Graham's astonishingly well-acted and quietly devastating revival of Molly Sweeney at the Print Room.

In Brian Friel's 1994 three-hander, which is composed of interwoven monologues on the explicit model of his earlier and intimately related play, Faith Healer (1979), the eponymous character is a young girl, blind since infancy, who has her sight restored to her for a brief, mountingly disastrous period before she relapses into the now compromised sanctuary of the unseeing world. There's a cracking play, as comically profane as it poetic, by J M Synge called The Well of the Saints in which  holy water cures an elderly couple of blindness only to rob them of the twin illusions that they are attractive and that the world is full of wonders.

There's an anticipation of Beckett in its black back-to-basics farce, whereas Molly Sweeney is sited at the tricky intersection of neurology and spirituality. It's a superb piece of writing but when it dips below its best, you faintly feel that the characters have swallowed the now celebrated article on “agnosia” by Oliver Sacks. Agnosia is the inability to recognise familiar objects and it is both clinical condition and metaphor in this piece.

Molly had been in he element, so to speak, blind (she uses the imagery of the sensory wholeness of swimming). Now she is exiled from the self-supporting seamlessness of that state, her predicament made worse by the fact that, for the two main men in her life she is more a project than a person. In what must be the quietest but almost the most psychologically searching performance on the London stage at the moment, Stuart Graham, clutching a glass of whisky, pulls you by whispered confidences into the abyss of drunken emotional and professional failure inhabited by Mr Rice, the fallen whiz kid ophthalmologist who wants to perform a miracle on his own life and on Molly in roughly that order of priority. 

It's a doomed attempt at auto-faith-healing. As Frank, Molly's man, Ruairi Conaghan bring out sad chipper, false resilience of a crank who understands, at some level, schemes with Iranian goats and recycling used tea leaves are in different in kind as well as degree to Project. In the title role, Ms Duffy simply breaks your heart.  

To 27 April; 020 7221 6036