Racing Demon

Thursday, 26 August, 2010

Tight production beautifully played

Edinburgh 2010 – the Spaces at Surgeon’s Hall – 23rd – 28th August ( 14.15)

Four priests grapple with faith

David Hare’s ‘Racing Demon’ is exceedingly well played by the young cast of the Shrewsbury School Drama Group. Each of the performers is a talented individual giving their all to an integrated, balanced, well directed ensemble. Their delivery of intellectually interesting dialogues and monologues is lively and emotionally engaged, keeping the audience enthralled and listening.

Playing David Hare’s interesting exposure of the doubts at the centre of the Church of England in the twentieth century, they create intensity and humour with a deftness rarely seen in professional companies. The play is set at the point when women are about to be ordained into the priesthood, though a late reference to the War in Afghanistan attempts to make it more contemporary and could confuse anyone in the audience hooked on the time line. The point being made, however, is that the Church of England’s unwillingness to back recent wars has made its relationship with political life difficult and this is as true now as it was in the 1980s. The stresses within the Church created by modern life, ethics and sexual openness are embodied in the dilemmas of the individual characters .

An inner city Church of England team ministry, responsible for “God’s Work” in South London, are at the centre of Hare’s study. Their leader, Rev. Lionel Espy, portrayed with compassionate power by Eoin Bentick, opens the play. He is begging God to make himself known, to respond, to prove He exists. Lionel is a sad man, in despair, working day and night to fulfill his role as a parish priest, with no sense of personal Spirituality. He is a “people pleaser” who does not have the spiritual or intellectual strength required to counter the evangelical energy and enthusiasm of his new curate, Rev. Tony Ferris, to whom Nick Constantine gives a stunning charisma. His physical intensity and vocal command keep this character on the edge between inspiration and mad fundamentalism which makes his conviction entirely believable.

He wants the Bible put at the centre of the Church’s work once more and Jesus Christ’s miraculousness to be spoken aloud, not hidden beneath layers of social worker solutions to what he sees as dynamic spiritual problems. This is very much at odds with the rest of the team’s laid back style and anathema to Lionel who regards evangelism as invasive and inappropriate to modern ministry. Lionel is also at odds with his Bishop who wants him to smile while saying Mass and to respect his “middle class” parishioners need for the rituals of the High Church, rather than regard them as anachronistic baubles better suited to palaces than the back streets of London’s poor.

Rev. Harry Henderson and  Rev. Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon, the other two members of the team, beautifully played by Joe Allan and Dan Bradshaw are not able enough to save Lionel’s world from collapsing around him and imploding from within.. Their two excellent performances show an acute understanding of the problems besetting their very different characters. Joe Allan plays  Harry’s loving repression with great understanding and Dan Bradshaw plays Streaky’s happiness from within with ease. The comic, compassionate and serious notes are well hit by all four actors in the Parish Team as the tragedies of their joint situation unfold.

They are wonderfully supported to do this by equally elegant performances from all the other cast members. Hebe Dickins gives Frances Parnell, Tony Ferris’s former lover; the crisp clarity which might be expected of a woman used to dealing with the higher echelons of the clergy since birth. She is a passionate woman with skillful ways who keeps her ear to the ground. Through her we see how stuck each of the others is in their inability to deal with “reality”.

The urbane Bishop, Rt.Rev.Charlie Allen, artfully played by Tom Elliott, is plotting to unseat Lionel Espy despite Freddie Ellery‘s refined Rt.Rev Gilbert Heffernen, Bishop of Kingston having made a promise to back him up should his tenure ever be challenged. Tom Elliott builds his performance to a fine explosion of bitter anger while Freddie Ellery allows the ineffectual Gilbert to vacillate with guilty charm, guarding his own back at all times..

Camilla Aylwin creates both pathos and humour as Stella Marr, the fulcrum of the plot around which all the issues of modern ministry come into focus for Rev.Tony Ferris as he challenges Lionel’s authority and style.  Alex Priestly truthfully portrays Heather Espy, wife to the doomed career cleric, a sad, broken, lonely woman long ignored by her busy husband. Her long service to the Church, looking after their children and meeting all her husband’s physical needs is entirely ignored. She withdraws into herself and her garden. She eventually, in the background, cracks under the pressure. Her alienated husband notices this only as an inconvenience, really only ever caring about himself and his well argued opinions.

Jack Flowers gives Ewan Gilmour, Rev. Harry Henderson’s secret lover great integrity and modern cool. Rob Cross, as the seedy journalist Tommy Adair is suitably oily and threatening. Their scenes together work well and Ewan’s quiet relationship with Harry gives the play another layer of depth.

Racing Demon demonstrates David Hare’s deep understanding failings in people and institutions. Peter Fanning and Eoin Bentick have directed this play with unerring deftness of touch. The set is simple and the projections which paint the sense of place are an elegant solution to the challenge of staging the splendour of a Bishop’s Palace Garden, the High Altar of a High Church, the Rectory and various London residences. The people portrayed live, in varying degrees of well heeled comfort and splendour, replete with tea and cake, dinners described with gusto and time to debate their relationship with the invading world around them. For one it is full of people needing to be heard as their misery flows around him, for another it is an empty Church which he needs to fill by offering people inner salvation and Jesus. Hard working priests whose beliefs are deeply challenged battle with church authorities painted as being more interested in their power than in Love and ever the lack of core agreement surfaces creating both laughter and pain.

It is a huge image of Jesus on the cross which appears most often on the screens, as the individual priests seek God’s guidance or reassurance, towering over all and holding everyone on the stage, on the white square of carpet which defines the limits of their world. These portrayals are of humans caught in a state of flux, coming to new conclusions about their lives as “The Inevitable Moment” demands. The ideas are huge and ever present for those engaged with embodying the Divine in our deeply secular society. These young people engage the ideas with vigour. If you can, see the show.

Cast: CLERGYJoe Allan – Rev. Harry Henderson, Eoin Bentick – Rev. Lionel Espy, Dan Bradshaw – Rev.Donald ” Streaky”Bacon, Nick Constantine – Rev.Tony Ferris, Fred Elleray – Rt.Rev.Gilbert Heffernon Bishop of Kingston, Tom Elliott – Rt. Rev. Charlie Allen, LAITYSam Ansloos – Waiters, Camilla Aylwin – Stella Marr, Rob Cross–Tommy Adair & waiters, Hebe Dickins–Frances Parnell, Jack Flowers — Ewan Gilmour, Alex Priestley — Heather Espy

The Company – Directors- Eoin Bentick&Peter Fanning, Lighting Designer —Al Wagner, Projections – James Mainwaring, Sound Designer — Ali Webb, Deputy Stage Manager — Alex Davies, Make-up — Laura Whittle, Costumes — Jane Fanning, Front of House —Toby Percival, Technical Dirctor — Andy Hinton, Tour Manager – Tony Percival, Playwright — David Hare


( c )Lilian Kennedy Brzoska 2010

reviewed Tuesday 24th August


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