Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

Frank McGuinness

New Ambassadors

(2005)

Review by Philip Fisher

Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the American? It may sound funny but this comic combination is no joke when they are slowly going mad in a bare cell. Strangely, this play about inhumanity could almost be listed as a comedy since there are so many funny lines in Dominic Dromgoole's revival of the award-winning drama.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Lebanon was a dangerous place for Westerners. A number such as Brian Keenan, John McCarthy, Terry Waite and Charles Glass hit the news headlines with a vengeance as they were held hostage by the Hezbollah, in some cases for years.

Frank McGuinness has taken this story and woven it into a magical three-hander about the indomitability of the human spirit. He also manages to speak volumes about national stereotypes and to paint detailed pictures of the lives of his protagonists. The original 1992 production, which started life at Hampstead under Robin Lefevre, starred Alec McCowen, Stephen Rea and Hugh Quarshie (with James McDaniel taking over in New York), and was a hit both in the West End and on Broadway.

The 2005 Someone Who'll Watch Over Me features an excellent trio of well-known actors playing men living in perpetual fear, trapped in a breezeblock cell and chained to radiators. In two-and-a-half hours, it consists of nine scenes, broken by a Rothko-style mural and extracts from Ella Fitzgerald's song from which the play has borrowed its name.

Trainspotting star and recent TV Byron, Jonny Lee Miller, the least visible of the three, is American doctor Adam, who was on his own for two months. By putting himself through a harsh fitness regime and rationalising his position, with the assistance of the Bible and the Koran, he somehow managed to stay sane.

The play opens two months further on, with Adam bolstering fiery, witty Irish journalist Edward, Aidan (Queer as Folks) Gillen. This father of three is less controlled and can be prone to mood swings. However, his noisy extroversion helps them both.

Soon, they are joined by an effete Englishman, Michael. David Threlfall, most recently seen on TV in Shameless, plays a redundant professor of Old and Middle English who appears the archetypal wimp, not helped by a plummy accent and an inability to sound his Rs.

The core of the play shows how these desperate men help each other to maintain their spirits and minds. They recreate films, stories and Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon triumph and write non-existent letters home. When one man flags, the others rally round but they are also not above combining in power games to attack the weakest or humble the overly-confident.

In pretty impressive company, David Threlfall, assisted by more than his share of the best lines (especially about the Irish potato famine), gives an unforgettable performance as the bumbling English prig who, when the chips are down, has the hidden depths that make him the strongest of all.

Despite a lack of theatricality necessitated by chained actors playing men living through hell, Dromgoole's production is both moving and absorbing and deserves to run for a good, long time.