During the first of four monologues, originally performed in 1979, Faith Healer gives the impression of being nothing more than a simple act of undoubtedly compelling storytelling.
Stephen Dillane is The Fantastic Frank Hardy, the mountebank of the title, perhaps a conman or one who is gifted depending on your point of view but undoubtedly as he himself says “a convoluted man”.
In a casual fashion, having recited a calming rosary of British town names, the dishevelled travelling healer/entertainer begins to define his peripatetic life through the medium of three significant stories, each set in a different country.
First, in Wales, Fantastic Frank healed a whole crippled audience, albeit only ten strong. In the Scottish Highlands, overlooking the Isle of Lewis, Frank and his Yorkshire-born mistress Grace endured something far sadder, while close to Brian Friel's beloved Ballybeg, a minor miracle called for something more spectacular in a tale that repeatedly stops short of its conclusion.
Having enjoyed and soaked up these convincing if possibly rather tall tales of the ordinary masquerading as something more mystical, the lights go down and Es Devlin's stunningly lit (by Bruno Poet) waterfall that welcomed the audience falls to hide the arrival of his Northern Irish wife (yes!) Grace, played by Gina McKee, in her Paddington bedsit.
The deeply depressed and possibly sedated former solicitor who eloped from her Judge-father with the charlatan relates what should be the same story but with many of the facts "corrected".
Her stilted delivery suggests greater veracity but how can we innocents on the far side of the fourth wall be sure?
The interval delays the arrival of Ron Cook as Frank's manager, cockney wide boy Teddy. His delivery is reminiscent of a stand-up comedian and quickly wins over the audience to a third version of events.
It is telling that the introductory programme note is written by Conor McPherson, since he is the playwright who has taken up the batten of the Irish monologue from Brian Friel and uses it to equally telling effect.
By the end of a little under 2½ hours, visitors will have been both charmed and challenged by not only the blarney delivered by the Faith Healer himself but the equally plausible and colourful alternatives retailed by his nearest and dearest.
Director Lyndsey Turner draws immaculate performances in different styles from all three of her actors. She ensures that the poetry of the piece complements the underlying narration, making the most of telling pauses either to get her visitors thinking or laughing.
Faith Healer remains an intoxicating depiction of the world of down-at-heel travelling entertainers at the same time as making some deeper comments about the nature of society and those that make it up. The play also gets into the human heart and explores the ways in which we deceive not only others but ourselves.
Under Josie Rourke, the Donmar is currently on a roll with projected programmes in King’s Cross and New York to supplement output in Covent Garden and, yet again, this production is likely to be a deservedly sold-out hit.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher