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Posts Tagged ‘Jessica Rhodes’

Lured by rave reviews (again), I went to a lot of trouble to see this play. I created a West Sussex weekend around its last scheduled performance, but it became a Covid casualty a couple of days before. I went ahead with the weekend anyway. It was rescheduled, so I succumbed to a second attempt, this time a day trip where the return journey was four times the length of the play.

John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play has been much produced around the world since it’s original Broadway success, also made into a successful film in 2008. I think the only London run was a couple of months at the then Tricycle Theatre in 2007. I have to confess I struggle to understand why it’s been so successful. I didn’t dislike it, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. With little by way of set and just four characters, it seemed static and more than a bit lost in such a big theatre. It might have fared better at the Minerva next door. I would certainly have preferred a more intimate venue.

It’s set in a New York catholic school in 1964, long before the high profile exposure of paedophilia in the church. At the core of the piece is a clash between progressive priest Father Flynn and a conservative nun, school principal Sister Aloysius. She interprets and infers sexual misconduct from a one-to-one meeting between the priest and the school’s first African American student. The boy’s mother does not support her witch-hunt, but she tricks the priest by claiming to have obtained evidence from his past. He seeks and obtains a transfer, somewhat ironically a promotion. The audience are left in doubt, which is the show’s point. We have to live with uncertainty, but our judgemental world today doesn’t seem to leave much room for that.

The performances are outstanding, with Monica Dolan and Sam Spruell a brilliant match for the conflict they have to present, and there’s fine support from newcomer Jessica Rhodes as naive young Sister James and Rebecca Scroggs as the mother drawn into the conflict, who had hitherto been happy her son had found a welcoming school at last.

I’d have been satisfied by this in an intimate London venue, but I can’t ignore the fact it was £60 (inc. travel) and a six hour round-trip, which weren’t really repaid, but that was my choice, my decision.

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Playwright Lucy Prebble has given us some excellent plays, most notably ENRON, her second, but isn’t very prolific – she’s only written three plays in the 16 years since this debut, but then again she’s also successful in TV, notably with HBO’s current hit Succession. Her fourth play, A Very Expensive Poison, premiered just four months ago and her third, The Effect, will be revived at the Boulevard Theatre in March, so we’re having a bit of a Prebble Fest. I missed this one first time round, so I was delighted the Orange Tree have revived it.

The play revolves around 17-year-old Dani who lives with her somewhat neurotic mother. Dani’s father works away and plays away too, something they are both fully aware of. She suffers with an eating disorder and has recently returned from a residential clinic which she resents being forced to go to. She frequents internet chat rooms, where she meets two very different people – lonely 22-year-old Lewis, seeking a relationship, and thirty-something paedophile Tim, looking for boys. She meets up with Lewis, and they strike up some sort of relationship. By posing as an 11-year-old boy, she also meets up with Tim and they strike up an even odder relationship, where she becomes a friend and confidante. The two worlds collide when Lewis visits Tim and then her home, and her relationship with her mother is exorcised.

These very sensitive issues are handled really well, in the writing, staging and performances. All of the characters are treated sympathetically, even Tim, delicately played by John Hollingworth. Ali Barouti navigates Lewis’ journey from desperation to obsession beautifully. Alexandra Gilbreath handles the complexity of mother Jan with great skill. Jessica Rhodes’ performance as the very mercurial Dani, onstage virtually throughout, is superb, even more impressive when you realise it’s her professional debut.

Oscar Toeman’s excellent revival benefits from the intimacy of this theatre, but the sunken playing area brings sightline issues, as it did with Pamona at the same venue. This was my only gripe with what was otherwise a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

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