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Plays International

Plays International

The National Theatre Publication

By Jeremy Malies

In an interview for this magazine earlier in the year, Chichester Festival director Jonathan Church described Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me as “the perfect play.” The piece has just had an outstanding run at the Broadway Theatre, Catford, from a new company, Yaller Skunk.

While Dominic Dromgoole’s West End production in the summer of 2005 still casts a lengthy shadow, director Rhys McClelland has brought his own subtleties to a version that benefits from a studio location.

The storyline draws on the experiences of John McCarthy and Brian Keenan in the Beirut of the 1980’s and the plot sounds like the beginning of a joke; an American doctor, an Irish journalist and an English academic are put together in a cell.

In scenes that could be months or even years apart, the men bicker constantly but also bond and grow to love each other as they try to kill time by remembering snatches of poetry, writing imaginary letters home and ‘shooting’ Hitchcock-inspired movies with improvised scripts. They have all absorbed Primo Levi’s dictum that the ultimate use of human will and intelligence is survival.

Georgina Lowe’s wonderful set – no more than artfully placed masonry and poured concrete – is immediately credible while lighting from a single bulb and an incessant background hubbub make the experience all the more harrowing. The blocking required by this tiny venue is such that one is often obliged to watch listener rather than speaker and from only a few feet away. Aware of this, the cast act almost cinematically through facial expression and closely observed gesture.

The strongest, most interesting character is Michael, played by Robert Maskell. An old- maidish, widowed academic who has come to Lebanon after failing as faculty head at a provincial university, Michael attributes his sanity while captive to a love of English literature and the pride he takes in having taught it. Maskell is outstanding as he reveals his character’s stoicism and courage while also proving convincingly bookish when reciting a thirteenth-century text, “Sir Orfeo”, and bringing choral qualities to a George Herbert poem.

As the narrative reaches a climax the actor is required to quote from an Old English text, “The Wanderer”, whose theme of exile is central to the plot. The piece’s alliterative meter should be one of the most resonant, affecting aspects of the play and an abiding memory. But perhaps for lack of a subtle voice coach, Rhys McClelland skirts round the dialect when Maskell undoubtedly has the vocal abilities to deliver it. A slew of Anglo Saxon scholars from London University should be queuing up to give some advice.

The casting is uniformly inspired with Mark Curtis exuding a sculptural, Old testament quality as the American, Adam, who is obsessed with his physical conditioning. In the words of one his cellmates, he is simply “beautiful to look at.”
All three actors have prodigious technical reserves. There is outstanding work from Curtis who reads frequently from the Koran with a lucid musical diction that acts on the listener like a valium rush. The character of Edward, the Irish journalist, is prosaic by comparison and yet as his persona recalls a branch line train journey around Dublin Bay. Kevin Watt invests the list of place names with the quality of blank verse.

The production is deeply moving. My throat had tightened within ten minutes and by the interval I was sobbing fit to beat the band, proving a stayer later on in the tradition of Edward’s racehorse, Dawn Run. I was not the only person weeping openly in a rapt capacity audience. As this article goes to press there is talk that the production will be transferred to a central venue, possibly Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall. The piece deserves full houses and mainstream theatre-goers should attend in droves. Beg for ticket, steal one or take some hostages if necessary.


Yaller Skunk Theatre Company, 218 Fortis Green Road, London N10 3DU
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