Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Be Near Me

Adapted from the novel by Andrew O'Hagan by Ian McDiarmid
National Theatre of Scotland and Donmar Warehouse
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2009)

At The Lowry this week, renowned actor Ian McDiarmid stars in his own adaptation of the novel Be Near Me by Booker-nominated author Andrew O'Hagan in the first co-production between two of the UK's leading theatre companies, The National Theatre of Scotland and London's Donmar Warehouse, with Blackwatch director John Tiffany at the helm.

With such a high-class pedigree, expectations are bound to be high, but fortunately the production does not disappoint.

McDiarmid plays Father David Anderton, an Oxford-educated catholic priest approaching the age of sixty with a fondness for fine wines, dinner parties and Chopin who is in charge of a parish in Ayrshire with a large working class population and high unemployment. His mother is a popular novelist who proudly declares her atheism and doesn't understand her son's attraction to the church.

When he is asked to help out with some more 'challenging' pupils at a local school, he forms an uneasy bond with a fifteen-year-old girl and boy, Mark and Lisa, with whom he could hardly have less in common culturally, taking them on field trips to local places such as Ailsa Craig. However he takes the friendship a few steps too far when he spends the night drinking and taking drugs with Mark in his house, and the police become involved. Father David begins to explore himself for the first time, especially his relationship with God and his reasons for joining the church in the first place.

McDiarmid's adaptation makes the novel truly theatrical, retaining the lyricism of the original but without it ever feeling like a novel adaptation. The first half is absolutely gripping, but the second act – which, unusually, is ten minutes longer than the first – does drag just a little in some places, particularly in the lengthy court scene, and could do with a bit of trimming.

Anyone who saw the stunning Blackwatch from NTS will recognise some elements of John Tiffany's direction, especially the slick choreography of the scene changes carried out by the ever-present cast as they sing hymns and Scottish folk songs. His tight direction with perfect control and variation of pace takes place on Peter McKintosh's very simple but effective set consisting of just a corrugated metal backdrop and a few movable wooden chairs and tables.

McDiarmid is a powerful presence on stage even as this weak and flawed priest, making him a little pompous, very naïve and perhaps even reckless, but keeping the audience on his side. There are great performances from Richard Madden and Helen Mallon as Mark and Lisa who are both very convincing as difficult teenagers. Blythe Duff gives a solid performance as David's housekeeper Mrs Poole and Colette O'Neil, although perhaps more sprightly than one would expect for the mother of a sixty-year-old, is perfect in the role of David's mother. The ensemble is completed by Jimmy Yuill, Benny Young, David McGranaghan, Kathryn Howden and Jimmy Chisholm who all play multiple roles and give great performances.

Behind the forgettable title lies a memorable and powerful piece of theatre, sensitively adapted, skilfully directed and with great performances all round, especially from McDiarmid whose character is the central focus for two and a half hours but who never loses the audience's rapt attention for a moment.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Donmar Warehouse

Reviewer: David Chadderton