The Theatreguide.London Review
Who'll Watch Over Me
In Frank McGuinness's 1992 drama three men are being held hostage by unseen kidnappers in Lebanon, and they spend their time bonding, breaking down barriers, and baring their souls.
It shouldn't work, for reasons I'll enumerate in a moment, but it does, making for a frequently moving and insightful evening.
To begin the list of handicaps McGuinness set for himself, the three men are introduced as stereotypes: an American (Jonny Lee Miller), all optimism and calisthenics; an Irishman (Aiden Gillen) chattering on about booze and horse racing; and a prissy, repressed Englishman (David Threlfall, having fun with a Edward Fox accent).
Cliches of characterisation abound, and it takes a good chunk of the play for the men to take shape as individuals.
A quick check of my files tells me that in the original London production thirteen years ago, despite a marginally stronger cast (Hugh Quarshie, Stephen Rea, Alec McCowen), they never really did, and I wrote at the time that I just did not believe in them as real people, nor did I believe that men in extended captivity would play the time-killing games they did.
So it is a credit to this cast and to director Dominic Dromgoole that the play seems so much stronger this time around. As the men take turns despairing and cheering each other up, letting down their barriers and being supported, and having moments of madness that the others delicately ignore, they move past their stereotypes and the artificiality of the set-up to become real and moving.
As mechanical as some of the author's construction may be (as that description of turn-taking suggests) each moment is altogether believable, and you accept without skepticism that each of the three would have a loss in his past that haunts him, or that each must take this opportunity to come to terms with his own father.
The time-passing games of make-believe - tending bar, recreating a tennis match, riding Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - are both witty in themselves and effectively heroic as permitted moments of madness designed to preserve sanity, just as the imagined letters home are both characterising devices and coping mechanisms and also moving dramatic moments.
Faced with the same acting challenge - begin as a cliche and evolve into a sympathetic individual - the three actors all succeed admirably. I've said in other contexts that when everyone in a cast is bad in the same way, the fault is the director's. So a great deal of the credit for everyone in this cast being excellent in the same way must go to Dominic Dromgoole.
By the end you may not even mind that McGuinness has too neatly and mechanically assigned each of the men a separate fate, so satisfying has been the time you spent in their company.
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