Happy 50th birthday Young Vic: A few of my favourite productions
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Review: Faith Healer, Old Vic In Camera - when 'Zoom theatre' truly comes into its own

I miss sitting in a theatre and watching a live performance. I miss it terribly. But the Old Vic's latest In Camera production - Brian Friel's Faith Healer - not only worked really well as a live stream, it might have worked better.

Faith Healer poster old vic in camera
The 'curtain' during scene changes

I've seen the play before, a production at the Donmar Warehouse in 2016, its format is four monologues told by three different characters all recounting the build-up to a fateful night in a pub in rural Ireland with each having a contrasting take.

The faith healer of the title is Frank Hardy (Michael Sheen) who travels around healing people with his wife Grace (Indira Varma) and manager Teddy (David Threlfall) tow.

Frank questions his ability to heal. He tells us he just knows when something is going to happen and when it is not. His success rate hasn't led to fame and fortune rather, it's a tough life on the road sometimes sleeping in the van.

Genuine or con?

Is his 'ability' genuine or a truth he tells himself or a con?

Both Teddy and Grace have something that resembles faith in his healing.

Teddy refers to it as a 'talent'. His background is in managing seemingly improbable - and amusing - variety acts such as Rob Roy, the bagpipe playing whippet.

Yet there is no perceived irony in how he talks about Frank or any of his 'acts'.

Versions of faith

Grace's relationship with Frank is a fractious one and full of tragedy so is it faith that stops her from walking away?

Frank tells his version of the story first, then Grace, then Teddy with Frank concluding the narrative. There are a few points that each character's story seems to corroborate but plenty that don't.

How do you choose who or which parts to believe, is Friel saying truth or faith is a matter of perspective, a belief in the stories we tell ourselves?

When I saw Faith Healer on stage, I wrote that I really hankered after some physical interaction between the characters which, obviously, you don't get with monologues.

Invisible force

Watching it on-screen there was no such desire. Instead, the intimacy of the experience - having the camera focus pull in to closely frame the actors' faces - was an invisible force that held you in the grip of the story.

Michael Sheen's performance as Frank set the bar ridiculously high.

You can see every twitch and tick, every swallow, every nuanced detail of his performance in a way that you can only get from being so close up. There were no shadows to hide in.

And then Indira Varma raised the bar. It was one of those moments when an actor wrong-foots you with a transformational performance, a performance in which every single thing you've seen them do before disappears.

Difficult task

David Threlfall had arguably the more difficult task, his narrative mixing dark tragedy with the more comic. It was delivered from an armchair while drinking bottle after bottle of beer - and yet it attracted no more scepticism than the others or elicited any less pathos.

The closeness of the performances bridged the divide between audience and performer, the collective experience you get from sitting in a physical theatre felt irrelevant. You were held firmly in the performers gaze as if you were the only person in the room.

It was powerfully magnetic and while previous In Camera productions have been admirable stand-ins for the in-theatre experience, this felt like 'Zoom theatre' had really come into its own. 

I'm giving it an emphatic ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

Sadly it only has one performance left but I do wonder if this is the last we'll see of it?

It is two hours and 20 minutes without an interval.

You might also like to read:

Review: Faith Healer, Donmar Warehouse from 2016

Happy 50th birthday, Young Vic - my favourite productions

From the archive: Why James McAvoy needs to tread the boards again.