Be Near Me ****

Be Near Me is a play of ideas.  It is filled with so many that it is almost impossible to explain what the play is ‘about’ because, in truth, it is about many things: sectarianism, generational misunderstanding, lamenting the past, class divide and homosexual morality tale, to name but a few.

If it is really about anything, it is about actor Ian McDiarmid proving how great of a stage presence he is.  He not only plays lead character David Anderton with pure zeal but has also written a rather well-structured script, an adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s highly regarded novel.  Watching McDiarmid is like observing a master class in acting, with every nuance of his performance, from word intonation and gesture to the smallest glance and inflection, denoting the character’s state of mind.  It is a powerful performance unlikely to be matched in intensity and focus for quite some time.

Luckily, the ensemble work is equally strong.  Most lurk in the back like an observant Greek chorus when not active, giving a hint of the sinister and, at times, playful.  Helen Mallon and Richard Madden are solid as Lisa and Mark, the two teenagers who lead Anderton down a road of discovery and temptation, and Jimmy Yuill has a few strong and memorable moments.  But one must single out Blythe Duff’s performance as maid Mrs. Poole, a supporting character that serves as an intriguing foil to McDiarmid’s Anderton.  Their scenes together are the production’s highlight and well worth the ticket alone.

John Tiffany’s production is pretty solid.  For such heavy themes, the play is remarkably funny, managing to raise more laughs and smiles than one would expect.  Tiffany’s signature use of spectacle is fairly restrained here, focusing far more on the performances than on technical matters, but there are a few stylistic and directional touches throughout the performance.

If there is a weak point, it can be found in the adapted script.  The characters and plot prove to be engaging but much of the action seems rather underdeveloped.  This isn’t down to a flawed script but rather the fact that it is an adaptation of a novel.  The form of a novel allows for a far richer examination of character and theme than the medium of theatre, and the production feels more like an introduction to interesting ideas rather than a grand scope.

Be Near Me is by no means a perfect theatre production.  It does ramble and many of the themes feel underdeveloped, but it does have a very theatrical sense and contains a number of remarkable performances that make it more than worth catching.

Review based on a performance at the Citizens on April 2.

Touring until May 2009.  For details, check NTS’s website here.


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