Notes on Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar Warehouse

Paul Reid (Gar in Public) and Rory Keenan (Gar in Private). Photo Johan Persson

First previews are difficult. Some times they are strange (you can even see the fear in the actors’ eyes). As I saw the Donmar production of Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come” on its first preview, these are some scribbled notes rather than a review. On the other hand, first preview or not, the production was coming together very nicely, poignant and funny, so I recommend it without reservations.

– The play effortlessly combines the personal and the social. On the surface, it’s entirely focused on personal decisions and stories (to the extent we see the internal life of one character). At the same time, social realities are all too evident: immigration, lack of opportunities, what it means to move away from loved ones in order to realise one’s potential. Ultimately, it focuses on one very common tragedy: people not knowing how to communicate their love for one another.

– Great performances all around, with a particularly impressive turn by Rory Keenan. He manages to be both an illusive and vital presence, often existing at the background, but at the same time changing the temperature of the scene by his mere presence.

– At first preview, Rory Keenan and Paul Reid already had a profound bond: some of their work together is technical (their movement on stage, while being entirely naturalistic, creates a force field that bounds them) but also, on a deeper level, they do feel as the two sides of the same coin. I particularly like that Rory Keenan is a bit older which, subconsciously, gives the internal thoughts of the character the benefit of hindsight. This is the older self talking to the younger one.

– If what I wrote above seems on the grim side, the play is full of humour: Private Gar and Public Gar are a nice double act, and other characters – especially Madge as played by Valerie Lilley – have a piercing sense of humour.

– The set design by Rob Howell is impressive. It makes you see the Donmar stage under a different light and I am still not sure how much of it was an optical illusion and how much was real.

On a side note, I remember seeing Translations by Brian Friel in a greek production several years ago. It was properly mind blowing and if Brial Friel can be mind blowing in a greek translation and with greek actors playing irish 19th century farmers, I should seek more of his work.

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