The following is a guest review from a London based reviewer.
It was with high hopes that I attended the final performance of ‘On Religion’, as produced by Tower Theatre at The Bridewell Theatre. The word on the street was that this was a real gem. Craven’s recent directorial vision on Talking Heads with KDC, starring two of the four actors from this production, had received similar praise. And the subject matter: a thinking play about religion but a feeling play about a family locked in battle over their differences was very appealing. How many plays really have an intention to make you both think and feel?
The story is simple. Grace (Anne Connell) is a university lecturer and prominent atheist (sorry naturalist). She is married to Tony (Ian Recordon): a Jew. Her son, Tom (Thom Petty) is a lawyer and has a girlfriend Ruth (Sharita Oomer), who the family seem to approve of. Conflict arises in the family when Tom decides to give up his job as a lawyer as he is feeling a calling from God to be a man of the cloth.
Of course any play with a cast of just four normally gives the actors something really juicy to work with, and all four actors in this production have moments to shine, but really the story is that of Grace. We really journey through everything with her, and Anne Connell’s performance is outstanding. From the very first scene, in which we cannot even see her eyes because they have been covered up by ping-pong balls for a scientific experiment to help her have a ‘religious experience’, we get to know a fully-realised, three-dimensional woman, her sarcastic wit actually covering up how humourless she can be if you get her talking about anything to do with religion. A C Grayling called the character a ‘female Richard Dawkins’ in his Q&A session after the performance and that was clear to anyone who knows anything about modern theology. Connell played Grace as a formidable woman, who will stop at nothing in her aim to change the world for the better by eradicating religion. Every scene she was in, you couldn’t help but be drawn towards her. Her stage presence was electric.
The cause of all the contention, Tom, was a less vocal, less sure of himself, less confident character. His changing views on religion didn’t even seem solidified as he took on the role of vicar. Thom Petty, in only his second acting role, played a sensitive and realistic portrayal of the man who had been torn in so many directions. His pivotal scene with Connell at the end of Act One was a great shift in the character and Petty gave an intelligent performance that showed there was more than one side to the character of Tom.
Ian Recordon’s Tony, patient, accepting and tolerant of his frankly intolerable wife, was incredibly natural in all the scenes at home. You really felt like he was living in the scenes at the dinner table and in the lounge with his newspaper. Often the voice of reason in amongst all the other drama around him, Recordon showed his experience as an actor, by playing down the unshowy-part, which really helped to hammer home the range of characters in the play.
The character of Ruth, drawn into this dysfunctional family was a hard one to pin down. Tony at one point refers to Ruth as ‘scary’, but there certainly no indications of this early on in the play, possibly because of the ferocity of Connell’s performance as Grace. Oomeer seemed quieter, shyer and more reserved and I was concerned that she wasn’t playing the part as confidently or assertively as the character demanded. Then along came a pivotal scene in the Second Act, between Oomeer and Connell which literally blew me away and any doubts as to the range that Oomeer might have were thrown away.
Such a fine cast can only produce the level of performances that these four actors did with a superb vision and driving force behind them and Victor Craven as the director must take a huge amount of credit for that. A play that could get bogged down in wordy speeches, it never ever dropped pace and the family unit was set up with such realism that you could believe these were real people, despite the somewhat contrived set up in the writing (an atheist married to a Jew with a child who becomes a vicar?) If the intention was to make the audience think AND feel, then that was certainly achieved. My religious views are probably closest to the character of Grace’s, but the compelling argument that Tom makes in the second act for the existence of God as a force is a fascinating watch. And the scene in the church between Ruth and Grace brought a tear or two to these eyes as both women captured the pain that the last two years had brought them with incredible intensity. Craven knows when to change the gear from thinking to feeling for the audience and had a great ability to move between the two types of theatre without the audience even realising.
Mention of Craven cannot end there. His projection and sound design, along with Phillip Ley’s set design was one of the big highlights of the play. The sets were simple but effective, but added to by the most incredible projections at the back of the stage. These were used to great dramatic effect and the sound that accompanied the breaking of the music to go into each scene gave a feeling of foreboding that suited the play perfectly.
In my time I’ve seen a lot of theatre, both professional and non-professional, but this play really was one of the best nights that I have ever had at the theatre. It is a huge shame that the run is over because I could not recommend it highly enough and am extremely excited to see what Victor Craven is looking to produce next. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be in the audience!