Brilliant delivery of Friel’s study of rural repression

Des McAleer as SB, Gavin Drea as Gar Private and Peter Coonan as Gar Public in Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Des McAleer as SB, Gavin Drea as Gar Private and Peter Coonan as Gar Public in Philadelphia, Here I Come!

THEATRE REVIEW: Philadelphia, Here I Come! @ Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Brian Friel - Ireland’s greatest living playwright - deals with his familiar themes of rural life, miscommunication and repressed emotion in this his 1964 play Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a drama that cleverly splits the protagonist into two characters - Gar Public (here played by Peter Coonan) and Gar Private (show-stealingly delivered by Gavin Drea).

On an evocative split level stage that shows the interior of a home in the fictional Ballybeg, old SB O’Donnell, an uncommunicative shop keeper, his son Gar and home-help Madge (Stella McCusker) move through the dull routines of their daily lives, failing to open up to each other and truly connect, even as 25-year-old Gar, tired of what he calls the “quagmire” that is his home village, prepares to leave for a new life in Philadelphia, (where he hopes to work in a hotel, live with his aunt, her impressive range of American appliances and cherry-pie optimism).

With such a finely-observed script - Friel’s writing is full of wisdom, exuberance, and frustration at the inability of human beings to say what they mean and break through the barriers between them to really see and hear each other - the cast is gifted with a poignant yet often hugely funny play to translate into action, and here it is wonderfully executed. But the production does slightly undermine the potency of certain scenes by shortening the aching silences when wordlessness or recourse to stock phrases between SB and Gar Public - “I suppose we can’t complain”; “Another day over” - are charged with the weight of inarticulate emotion.

But there are so many things to celebrate in this production, most notably the superb contrast between Coonan’s blundering Gar Public and the singing, dancing, silver-tongued Gar Private - an electric Gavin Drea - whose chatter, singsong and frequent recital of lines from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (a verbal tic and fleeting rewind to Gar’s sole year as an arts student at UCD) rails against the pervading silence of the household and projects a voice that is both the heart and conscience of this undisputed masterpiece of Irish drama.

Friel holds the balance between pathos and humour fabulously. There is deep sadness: Gar’s failed romance with Kate (Susan Davey) is unveiled in all its raw disappointment; the early loss of his mother looms; and when Gar finds strength to ask his father if he recalls a treasured memory when they were out in a blue boat together - a rare moment of intimacy - his devastation when this isn’t fully corroborated is heartbreaking. And yet things are so sad they are also very funny, as when Canon Mick O’Byrne (played by the brilliant Niall Cusack) repeats an off-hand remark of Madge’s when she scolds him before he commences to a game of dominoes with his chum SB; “You wait says she, til the Rosary’s over and the kettle’s on”; by the fifth or sixth repetition, accompanied by uproarious laughter, you begin to sense that the silence is driving them all to the brink of hysteria, so that the merest line of half-hearted wit is blown up to epic levels of frantic glee.

A superb study of repression and a strong critique of the cowardice behind “strong and silent men”.


Lyric Theatre, Belfast until March 8. Visit or call the box office on 02890 381081.