Review: Philadelphia, Here I Come! Donmar Warehouse

“Just because he doesn’t say much doesn’t mean that he hasn’t feelings like the rest of us”

Instincts can be useful and they can also be really annoying, especially when you don’t follow them. After three weeks away from the theatre, most of which has been spent lying by a pool in the South-West of France, my first engagement back was at the Donmar Warehouse to see Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! As with most things at theatres such as these, I automatically book for everything as soon as it is released, sometimes it’s the only way to guarantee getting the cheap seats, and so there is rarely any sense of deciding whether I actually want to see something or not. And because it is then cheap, thus one can argue that it doesn’t really matter if I don’t like it – such excellent self-perpetuating logic is needed to ensure I keep getting up early to join the website-crashing scrum of first day booking.

But my tolerance has lessened somewhat as I’m slowly weaning myself off my addiction to theatre (at least to a more manageable position…) and after having unpacked my holiday things and checked the calendar as to when I was next booked in anywhere, my heart was not particularly singing with joy at the prospect of seeing this play. I allowed myself to be persuaded that I needed to “get back on the horse” and that I was just suffering from post-holiday blues – my companion reckoned I wouldn’t have been enthused about any play that didn’t involve me sitting in a hot tub – but in all honesty, my overall impression of Philadelphia… was one of overwhelming ‘meh’.

Friel’s work has a relatively simple set-up: Gar O’Donnell is spending his final night in rural Ireland before he emigrates to the USA saying his goodbyes to his father, his friends and his varied childhood memories. But what differentiates the play is that Friel has split Gar into private and public selves, so Paul Reid is the quietly restrained public persona who interacts with the great and not-so-good of Ballybeg whilst Rory Keenan is the much more extroverted inner self who gets to say all the things he wishes he could say out loud. As a device, it is extremely clever and this pair of actors have developed an extraordinary chemistry, a physical language that is at times mesmerising to watch.

But, and this is a rather big but, that was about it in terms of level of interest for me. So little actually happened in the play that I found it to be predominantly rather dull once my initial impressedness had worn off.  Gar isn’t a particularly interesting character and as such, the central thrust of the corrosiveness of emotional constipation didn’t have half the tragic kick that it ought to have carried. Only in his relationship, or lack thereof, with his taciturn father – James Hayes in excellent form – is there the hint of a genuinely interesting story that could have been explored and that might have engaged me more but little is really fleshed out here.

Instead we’re left with yet another portrayal of small town Ireland life, which seems to have endless variants on our stages and rarely with much to actually say alongside it, and nothing really insightful coming from this particular night in the theatre. Having gone with something of a mixed mindset in the first place won’t have helped matters, so I’ve got myself to blame as much as anything, but also I’ve not had too much luck with Irish drama over the past couple of years and so it probably is time for me to give it a rest and try to resist booking it. Famous last words 😉

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 22nd September

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