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Review: I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard (Finborough Theatre)

Halley Feiffer's black comedy is about an actress who wants to make her famous playwright father proud

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Watching Jake Smith's perfectly pitched UK premiere of this 2015 off-Broadway two hander, one can't help but wonder how much of Halley Feiffer's writing is autobiographical. This brutal but engrossing comedy-drama is both a love letter to theatre and a searing examination of the cruelty and self-absorption that sometimes accompanies the creative urge. The author's real life father is the cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer, and the leading character here is respected, award-winning writer David, while his daughter Ella is an actress-turned-playwright.

The play asks some uncomfortable questions about how much of a persons real life should be incorporated into their art, and bleakly seems to suggest that creative integrity and successful family relationships are pretty much mutually exclusive. It is, however, a lot more fun than it sounds. Feiffer's foul-mouthed dialogue is often hilarious in the first act, as father and daughter await reviews of an off-Broadway production of The Seagull that Ella has just opened in - David's withering opinion of critics is breathtakingly vicious and bottom-clenchingly funny. As the scene draws on though, the toxicity of the relationship becomes increasingly clear: the endlessly loquacious David is a self-medicating bully with some disturbing family backstory. Ella meanwhile hangs on his every word, desperate for his approval. He tells anecdote after anecdote, which she listens to dutifully -not for the first time- but then he turns, childlike, on a dime at any perceived slight. It is a tribute to the skill of Feiffer's writing that we are aware of what a frequently outrageous person he is, yet we are never bored by him and want to keep hearing more. There are moments that suggest Albee at his most booze-soaked and coruscating.

All this is beautifully wrought in Smith's finely acted production: Adrian Lukis rivetingly conveys David's towering egoism and casual cruelty but hints at a buried vulnerability, even achieving moments of genuine sweetness -such as when he fondly remembers the Broadway theatre of his childhood, or a beloved younger sister. Jill Winternitz imbues Ella with an aching, watchful vulnerability, and her final showdown with her father at the climax of act one is almost too painful to watch. They are both brilliant, and entirely credible as severely dysfunctional father and daughter.

The second act - there is no interval, just a strikingly vivid scene transition - takes place several years later, and Ella, now estranged from her father, has become successful with her autobiographical one woman show. Winternitz's transformation from needy to brittle yet powerful is stunningly well done. Feiffer rather too neatly draws parallels between the solipsistic tyrant of the first half and the damaged-but-tough daughter of the second, but then wrongfoots us by bringing David back, now stroke-impaired and unable to verbally express himself unless by singing. Despite everything that has gone before there is something undeniably moving about seeing this shell of a man clutching a bouquet of flowers, desperately trying to communicate with his long lost daughter to the tune of "Somewhere" from West Side Story. The subsequent denouement is genuinely shocking but feels dramatically satisfying.

If the construction is a little obvious, this is still a blazingly impressive piece of writing, immaculately staged and acted to the hilt. Thought-provoking and well worth catching.

I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard runs at the Finborough Theatre from 2 to 25 March.