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The Potting Shed, by Graham Greene

Friday, 7 January, 2011

Questions of belief

The Finborough Theatre, www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Playing until 29th Jan 2011

What exactly did happen in the Potting Shed?

It is an unnerving fact that the last time this production was seen (in 1971, at Sadler’s Wells), Cliff Richard played the lead role. Now, a lot of years later, the multi-award-winning Finborough Theatre has bravely revived this 1950’s Graham Greene play, which deals with faith, the lack of it, and the nature of human existence.

If these are issues that concern you, then you may well find this play compelling. It is one of those productions though, where symbolism and underlying questions are at its core, and take precedence over the demands of believability. In cold, clinical terms, psychology and motivation are more gestured at than substantiated.

The play opens with the Callifer family gathering around the death bed of the family patriarch, a crusading atheist. (In today’s terms, someone like Richard Dawkins perhaps?).

Invitations though, have not been extended to everyone. The dying man’s brother, a Catholic priest, is perhaps excluded on understandable terms, but it is only the intervention of the precocious and very literal young daughter of the family, Anne (Zoe Thorne), that brings the estranged Callifer son, James (Paul Cawley) to the household. For many years he has hardly been acknowledged as a part of the family, rarely even visited by his mother and this is all because of  some past misdemeanour, a misdemeanour that happened when he was 14,  in the mysterious potting shed, about which he has no memory at all, (even though enlisting a drug-wielding psychologist to help).

The family is dysfunctional enough that even the son’s former wife Sara (Cate Debenham-Taylor) has – after her divorce – become part of the family circle. The search for motivation here and indeed the reluctance of James’s mother, Mrs Callifer (Eileen Battye) to explain to her son the nature of what exactly did happen, may lead you down blind alleys. Better to sit back, accept what is happening and listen to the debate about the nature of God, the meaning of existence, and how (for Greene) uncertainty over what a God might be is an essential part of being alive.

These are all familiar Greene themes, which here often have a slightly cynical and worldly twist, and bring questions of belief into the heart of a middle-class drawing room, not always with the straightforward conclusions that one might imagine.

This is not a great play but it does have an excellent cast who play it with a lot of energy and style, and it does represent an interesting sidelight on the life and work of Graham Greene, who was both a complex writer and man.

Cast: Eileen Battye – Mrs Callifer; Paul Cawley – James Callifer; Cate Debenham-Taylor – Sara; Corner – Carl Ferguson; Dr Kreutzer – David Gooderson; Mrs Potter – Janet Hargreaves; John Callifer – Malcolm James; Miss Connolly – Lorna Jones; Dr Frederick Baston – Charlie Roe; Anne Callifer – Zoe Thorne; Father William Callifer – Martin Wimbush

Director – Svetlana Dimcovic; Designer – Kate Guinness; Lighting – Jessica Glaisher; Sound – Simon Perkin

Reviewed 6 January 2011

© Michael Spring 2011

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