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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Be Near Me
Donmar Warehouse Theatre       January-March 2009

As a play, Ian McDiarmid's adaptation of Andrew O'Hagan's 2006 novel is not very successful. As a vehicle for actor Ian McDiarmid, it is considerably more satisfying.

What works in fiction doesn't always translate to the stage, and McDiarmid's dramatisation meanders, takes far too long to find its subject, changes tone and focus with almost every scene, and never really decides or makes clear to us - what it's about.

What holds it tenuously together and makes the evening worthwhile is star McDiarmid, giving the kind of intelligence-driven, sensitive and magnetic performance we have come, far too complacently and unappreciatively, to expect from him as a matter of course.

McDiarmid plays a Catholic priest newly assigned to a coastal Scottish village. He's not particularly surprised or dismayed to discover the villagers predictably provincial, xenophobic and unsophisticated, and he befriends a teenage couple, spotting that beneath their crudeness, ignorance and knee-jerk racism they're essentially good kids.

Unwisely, perhaps, he drinks with them and smokes dope with them, and very unwisely he drunkenly and impulsively kisses the boy.

The kid takes what is no more than an embarrassing moment well, and it is made absolutely clear that he is totally unharmed by the encounter. But, after what plays like a digression into a dinner party debate on American politics, the priest is arrested for sexual assault on a minor.

The play then becomes a courtroom drama, and then a post-courtroom drama, and then decides that the culture clashes of the first act were a red herring and that it is actually about the question of whether the priest's calling was ever real.

It ends with him, not quite defrocked but certainly de-parished, not particularly shaken or unhappy.

Indeed, with the exception of the death of a secondary character, everyone seems to end the play at least as content as they were at the start, leaving us to wonder what the point of the adventure was.

But, while we may never be sure why we are watching any particular scene or where it is all going, actor McDiarmid makes every moment work dramatically.

We may not understand why he's thinking or feeling what he does, but we believe absolutely in the reality of those feelings.

If there is a backbone to the play (and the novel?) it is the priest's amiable distance from everything around him as, cocooned in his love of good music, fine wine and people in general, he floats through life generally unaffected by any of its bumps - and that comes across entirely through McDiarmid's performance.

There are solid supporting characterisations by Helen Mallon and Richard Madden as the teenagers, and Blythe Duff as an astute and caring housekeeper, and credit must go to director John Tiffany for keeping it from falling apart more than it constantly threatens to do.

But the evening is really all about Ian McDiarmid's acting.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Be Near Me - Donmar Warehouse Theatre 2009

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