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Review Round-up: McDiarmid Nears Perfection?

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Be Near Me, adapted by Ian McDiarmid (pictured) from Andrew O'Hagan's Booker Prize-nominated novel, opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night (26 January 2009, previews from 22 January), following its premiere at Kilmarnock's Palace theatre last week.

Be Near Me tells of a Catholic priest, Father David Anderton, who takes over a small Ayrshire parish. Bored and culturally isolated, he soon runs into trouble with the local populace after a romantic encounter with Mark, a local teenager with special needs and a drug habit.

McDiarmid himself plays David Anderton, supported by a cast including Richard Madden (Mark), Blythe Duff, Helen Mallon and Colette O'Neil. It's directed by National Theatre of Scotland associate John Tiffany and produced by the NTS in association with the Donmar.

Warm but not euphoric would best summarise the critical reaction of both those who attended last week's Kilmarnock premiere and those at the Donmar last night. Primary reservations were with McDiarmid’s adaptation, which several observed failed to fully capture the spirit of O'Hagan's novel. However, overall sentiments were positive, particularly for McDiarmid’s “stunningly subtle” turn in the central role,  “superbly drawn” performances from the majority of the supporting cast and the “beautifully fluid” direction of John Tiffany.


  • Roger Foss on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “While McDiarmid puts in a stunningly subtle performance, conveying the celibate priest as a naïve, prim and emotionally reserved victim of his own secrecy, his stage adaptation of O’Hagan’s prose takes most of the first act to begin to get near to the beating heart of a lonely man completely adrift in a godless community … With superbly drawn performances from Blythe Duff as the cancer-ridden housekeeper who eventually pierces Father David’s emotional armour, Colette O'Neil as the novelist mother who provides his only reality check and Richard Madden as his chaotic schoolboy nemesis, the end result is an absorbing morality play that eventually gets almost too close for comfort in these morally ambiguous times – whether you’re a Scot or a Sassenach.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars – reviewed in Kilmarnock) – “Though McDiarmid has been faithful to O'Hagan's book, he can't quite capture the thing that matters most: the idea that Anderton's actions are rooted in old memories and explicable only in terms of personal loss. Whereas the novel moves fluidly between past and present, the play takes place exclusively in the here and now. In compensation, John Tiffany's production makes brilliantly manifest one of the book's background themes: the violent sectarian passions of Ayrshire life. Keeping the actors on stage throughout, Tiffany has them periodically burst into IRA and Orange anthems, thus lending Anderton's personal crisis a strong political dimension.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “A young man and his gay ghost loiter in the background of Andrew O’Hagan’s poignant novel Be Near Me, which inspired a rush of superlatives when it was published a couple of years ago. Ian McDiarmid’s misguided stage adaptation of the book, though, is greatly diminished by the fact that these crucial figures in the distant past of a middle-aged gay priest have been virtually expunged …  The novel’s key figure, Father David Anderton … is finely played by McDiarmid, all effervescent camp in private and shuttered inscrutability in public … McDiarmid’s Peter Pan-like priest, beset by loss of hope and love, shimmers with vulnerability and sadness.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “There’s something dilettante, smug, precious, self-indulgent, even childish about McDiarmid’s Anderton, but also subtly insecure and vulnerable. Not for nothing does the play begin and end with him painfully quoting Tennyson’s plea for God to be 'near me' when his 'light is low' or 'the sensuous frame' is causing him pain, or 'I fade away'. Anyway, he finds a new integrity and seriousness in his humiliation. As for the community, the report is mixed. The mob chalks 'perve' on walls and even sets fire to the vicarage, but individuals seem more understanding. As a picture of a riven community, it’s somewhat sketchy. As a portrait of a man thrust out of the shallows, and achieving a bit of depth, it’s more impressive.”

  • Kate Bassett in the Independent on Sunday (reviewed in Kilmarnock) - “McDiarmid's wizened Anderton is highly effete, but with a lively wit. A child of the rebellious Sixties, he can't help laughing indulgently at adolescents behaving badly. This is a subtle depiction of the perilous fine line between liberal tolerance and moral spinelessness. The production has its blips. McDiarmid can be mannered, yet his unspoken yearning is poignant when he watches Richard Madden's swaggering Mark. That rattling backstage might almost have been his spirit, long trapped in the closet, breaking free. Director John Tiffany's production is beautifully fluid, with melancholic Celtic airs weaving between scenes.”

    by Theo Bosanquet

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