Dark drama at the care home: PATRICK MARMION reviews The Visiting Hour

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We have the Irish to thank for keeping the music in the English language alive on stage over the past century. Two of the greatest exponents of this are Frank McGuinness and Brian Friel.

McGuinness has a new play, The Visiting Hour, out this week. Starring Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy, it was filmed at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. And one of Friel’s finest, Faith Healer, has been recorded as an audio drama, with Ian Rickson directing Ciaran Hinds, Michelle Fairley and Toby Jones.

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The Visiting Hour is a dark, unsettling game of cat and mouse between a man with dementia, living in a care home, and his daughter, who comes to see him during the pandemic.

Stephen Rea’s character is an old crooner who claims to have been a runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest . . . on several occasions. But between his confusion, clarity and moments of rage, the truth is never certain.

Roddy’s character is weary of his ways — and the paltry reward she gets for indulging them.

Much of the dialogue is in the form of cagey proverbs, exchanged either side of a safety screen (set up and polished by stagehands in a dirge-like 15-minute prologue).

Rea, sporting grey, King Charles II curls, is enthroned in an armchair. Half-patient, half-clown, he wears a tuxedo on top. . . with pyjama bottoms below.

Roddy, in jeans and trainers, sits cross-legged on a bench the other side of the glass, feeding on small crumbs of connection.

Occasionally, they sing snatches of songs to each other — leathery old Rea, with his shadowy eyes, has a whistle in his voice, while the radiant Roddy sounds sweeter and sadder.

Beautifully as the dialogue hums, in elliptical phrases, I wasn’t sure by the end if I knew the characters any better. This may be a point about the enigma of dementia. But much as I loved the elegiac tone, it’s still a slightly frustrating (90-minute) ‘Hour’.

Friel’s Faith Healer, told in a series of monologues, is more overtly lyrical, but his plot also carries a darkly tragic momentum. 

Toby Jones is ruefully jaunty as Cockney Teddy in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, told as an audio drama

Hinds plays the title role of Francis (‘Frank’) Hardy, an addled old wastrel who tours small towns in Scotland and Wales in the 1950s and 1960s, offering to cure the sick and the lame. 

Embroidering his life, Hinds seduces you with his character’s blarney, and a voice like a leopard with laryngitis.

As Frank’s wife, Grace, Fairley tunes into the anger and pathos of a woman forsaken by her well-heeled parents in Ireland — and debauched by her decision to stick with her penniless showman of a husband on the road.

And Jones, with a beery lilt to his voice, is ruefully jaunty as Cockney Teddy: a small-time booker of music-hall acts, who is devoted to them both.

The play lends itself richly to audio, its language painting a picture of the derelict world the trio traverse, from Powys to Sutherland — ending on a fateful night in Donegal, where they encounter ‘the remnants of a wedding party’.

But I was also enchanted by the whisper of the North Atlantic surf; and the squeak of a cork in a bottle in Rickson’s sorrowful production, where even the actors’ long, sad sighs will take your breath away. 

Too-good-to-be-true tale of love in the time of Covid 

U.Me: The Musical (bbcworldservice.com/musical, **) is a smiley-face musical, with smiley voices and music.

Produced by the BBC World Service and recorded for podcast with the BBC Philharmonic, it’s about wholesome twenty- something Rose in London (Anoushka Lucas) who falls in love online with lovely, bashful Ryo in Tokyo (Martin Sarreal).

It also features warm-as- Horlicks narration from cuddly Stephen Fry.

In a world where ‘home is a place where everyone loves you’, all that stands between Rose, Ryo and everlasting bliss is the global pandemic.

Theo Jamieson’s music is as perky as a jog in the park on a gorgeous spring day, running quick-quick-fast with free-flowing piano that pauses for breath before racing off again into swelling violins and kettledrums.

I’m all in favour of feelgood shows . . . but this feels way too good to me to be true.

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