REVIEW: Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Jamie P. Robson is enchanted by this pitch-perfect production of Brian Friel’s humorous, touching play about the uncertainties of leaving home.

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The night before a big move is a time when you expect to be dreaming of the future, of the people you’ll meet and the life you’re going to build.

Gar O’Donnell, on the eve of his departure for the grand ol’ USA, is partly thinking of that, sure. But now, standing on the precipice of abandoning an old life — and starting another — he cannot stop thinking of the past: a tide of memories surges within him, reminding him of time spent with friends of uncertain loyalty and worth; of extinguished courage and abandoning a soulmate; of decades of dinner-table silence endured beside his routine-bound, reticent father.

Dreaming of Philadelphia – James McMullan as Gar O’Donnell. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Philadelphia, Here I Come! is, first and foremost, a remarkable portrait of Gar’s inner life. To that end, the play features two versions of Gar, the public and the private. Public Gar is his persona, the person he presents to the world, whilst his much more assured private self offers a glimpse into private musings, fanciful imaginations, and the thoughts he is too afraid to share. The audience observes these two (dressed identically for most of the play) and is treated to a fascinating dramatic representation of the the way in which we conceal (and, sometimes disastrously, fail to conceal) what we truly think or feel.

As is no doubt obvious, a production of Philadelphia demands a stunning pair of lead performances to succeed, which James McMullan and Ben Walsh (as the public and private halves of Gar respectively) effortlessly deliver, injecting their roles with such vitality, such humour, and such emotion that one is always engaged.

We’ve all talked to ourselves – James McMullan and Ben Walsh. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Their most impressive feat, however, is the fact that they manage to convincingly depict a single character. The public and private Gar are by no means the same — the public persona is often calmer, Gar’s face seeming unworried to the world whilst the private side panics or grows furious — yet both standout performances intertwine to form a remarkably cohesive portrait, one that is a real delight to watch.

Whilst it’s suitable to focus on McMullan and Walsh, it would be remiss to neglect to praise the rest of the uniformly fantastic cast, several of whom imbued multiple characters each with a distinct and believable sense of personhood. Though there isn’t the space to discuss every performance, Emma Corrin, particularly, brings a breathless, youthful excitement to the stage as the lover Gar should have married in his youth, and her later turn as a shyer member of Gar’s group ‘lads’ is hilariously realised.

Gar’s missed opportunities – such as a possible engagement with Kate (Emma Corrin) – trouble him throughout the play. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Other elements of the production exude similar polish and professionalism. The set is very intelligently designed, with Gar’s bedroom (appearing as if viewed from above) a particular visual treat; the lighting and sound, meanwhile, infuse the show with an extra layer of visual and dramatic potency.

Ian Johnston’s production of Philadelphia is one which offers emotional power and intellectual heft, propelled by slick direction and captivating performances. So whilst Gar may feel conflicted about travelling to America, you should have no qualms about heading to the Corpus Playroom.

4.5/5 stars