Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me

A decade or so hasn't done much for Frank McGuinness' hostage drama "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," which more than ever suffers a misplaced case of the cutes. If the script's approach seemed ill-advised at the play's 1993 premiere, it's far worse now in an age when hostages are as likely to suffer the fate of Daniel Pearl as they are to start singing along to "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

This review was corrected on Wednesday, May 5, 2005

A decade or so hasn’t done much for Irishman Frank McGuinness’ hostage drama “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” which more than ever suffers a misplaced case of the cutes. If the script’s approach seemed ill-advised at the play’s 1993 premiere, it’s far worse now in an age when hostages are as likely to suffer the fate of Daniel Pearl as they are to start singing along to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Dominic Dromgoole’s staging and a fine cast do what they can to intensify the existential horror of the scenario, but can’t counter the impression that McGuinness has put the exigencies of a putative West End and Broadway hit above that far rockier dramatic terrain known as truth.

The drama is said to have been inspired by the story of Irish hostage Brian Keenan, and it’s no surprise that McGuinness is far more interested in the antagonisms between his play’s sparky resident Irishman, journalist Edward (Aidan Gillen), and English university lecturer Michael (David Threlfall) than he is in the third person who shares their Beirut cell: American doctor Adam, an underwritten part given unexpected gravitas by a bearded, faultlessly accented Jonny Lee Miller.

A begrimed trio inhabiting the same space under the merciless glare of a bare bulb (the expert set is by Anthony Lamble), the three pass the time with varying amounts of mutual baiting and badinage, including a re-creation of the 1977 Wimbledon ladies’ final between Virginia Wade and Betty Stove that serves to remind one of the eternal Anglo-Irish fondness for charades.

But what of the Beckettian abyss into which people in such situations must feel as if they’ve quite literally been plunged? That emerges more from the performers’ keenly detailed work than from the script itself.

His voice raw with shock and disbelief, Gillen in one instant makes one feel the grievous depths that have led to Edward’s jail cell hunger strike. And when he or Miller take turns to sing, the latter stilling the house with a movingly staccato “Amazing Grace,” the silences between the music speak volubly to lives transformed in a flash amid a deepening political imbroglio that now, even more than in the early 1990s, gives off scant signs of hope.

The first act, to be fair, shows some flair, as McGuinness makes plain the extent to which enmity is man’s natural state, regardless of nationality. That’s evident enough from the quickness with which Edward flares up against Michael, the English newcomer to their incarcerated ranks. “These guys don’t need to tear us apart,” we’re told, lest the point had not been made. “We can tear each other apart.”

Adam has less of interest to do beyond speak the sort of casual machismo that clearly passes for authentic American-ness to too many foreign writers. “They got my ass over a barrel,” he remarks, the comment missing only the requisite chewing of gum, “and I ain’t wearing jockey shorts.”

Act two meanders all over the place, retaining only the fondness for the overexplicit that we’ve already clocked. Poor Threlfall, a rugged actor intriguingly cast against type in Alec McCowen’s original role as milquetoast Michael, has to field one mawkish set piece after another, while only Gillen’s invaluably flinty presence gets him through a teary passage in which he takes us to his forgetful father’s grave.

Play also isn’t helped by the theatrical shift of late toward verbatim dramas (“Guantanamo,” for one) that dramatize near-imaginable conditions more precisely than all but the most imaginative playwright.

With that in mind, one line resonates well beyond the plaintive snatches of Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin that give the play its title. With the edgy Gillen keeping us alert to every shifting filigree of human emotion against near-impossible odds, the audience’s hairs seem to rise at one when he barks early in act two, “Save us from all who believe they’re right” — a command that hasn’t dated one bit.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me

New Ambassadors Theater, London; 408 Seats; £40 ($76) Top

  • Production: A Background Theater presentation of a play by Frank McGuinness in two acts. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Anthony Lamble; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, Fergus O'Hare. Opened April 19, 2005; reviewed April 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Adam - Jonny Lee Miller Michael - David Threlfall Edward - Aidan Gillen
  • Music By: