A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving adapted by Simon Bent
RNT Lyttelton
(2002)

The second play in the Lyttelton Transformation season is another adaptation of a modern novel. A Prayer for Owen Meany is John Irving's New Hampshire-set tale of a Christ-like young boy.

The first thing to mention is that it is distinguished by excellent acting, particularly from Aidan McArdle as the eponymous hero. It must take all of his physical resources to perform for three hours in the part of "a boy with a wrecked voice". To do this, he produces a voice reminiscent of Mickey Mouse and it is clear by the end of the performance that this is very hard work.

The style of Mick Gordon's production is reminiscent of previous adaptations at the National such as Remembrance of Things Past and the wonderful Cloudstreet. It is very episodic and uses a bare set with props appearing from the wings and flies. It achieves great success by adding layer upon impressionistic layer to build up a picture of this latter-day Messiah.

The play thrives on dramatic tensions. At almost any moment, the good will be juxtaposed with the bad, although it is not always certain which is which. This adds to an intimate drawing of the relationship between Owen, with his certain Catholic upbringing, and his great friend, disciple and chronicler, Johnny Wheelwright, played by Richard Hope. By contrast, he is a man who searches for but cannot find religious faith.

Johnny is an enigma, the son of the beautiful Tabitha (Kelly Reilly) and an unknown father. By contrast, Owen knows his unbelievably weird parents hilariously depicted by Robin Soans and Sandy McDade, although the identity of his father is also couched in mystery.

Simon Bent takes considerable trouble over his scene setting in the period up to the first of the two intervals. This means that the rhythm is rather slow but the investment pays off as the characters and the plot develops. This is far more than just the tale of a 5 foot tall boy (smaller than the Thanksgiving turkey or his own baseball bat) who is destined never to grow up. There is much theological debate and the satire on religious frippery can be hilarious. This reaches its peak in a scene which combines the Nativity with A Christmas Carol. The TV style evangelists, Rectum (sic) Wiggins and his wife Barb are also perfect.

In addition, the play attempts to comment on the history of the United States over the period of Owen's life, from the end of the Second World War to the riotous year of 1968. This adds real depth and also forms an integral part of the plot.

As the play moves into Owen's haunted teenage and adults years, it really takes off. His single-minded determination in his search for perfection on the basketball court may seem a little odd but symbolises his bond with Johnny and also his singular view of life.

His true heroism finally emerges in revolt against American imperialism. It is a given that A Prayer for Owen Meany will savagely attack American Conservatives and in particular, those who take themselves too seriously. This is seen at its rawest as Aidan McArdle produces a great Lenny Bruce routine which nearly does for his voice.

As well as fully realising the characters of Owen and Johnny, Mick Gordon's direction ensures that many of the minor players are well developed as a result of a few well-chosen lines or a combination of movement and costume.

A Prayer for Owen Meany works because it manages to combine a great deal of humour with incredible pathos, building in a crescendo to a breathtakingly moving ending. The performances of Richard Hope as the devastated friend who can still not get over the impact that Owen had on his life over twenty years ago, and, especially, of Aidan McArdle will make this production live in the memory for a very long time.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher