Writer: Tim Foley
Director: Jaz Woodcock-Stewart
Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary received the Judges’ Award at The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Award-winning plays prompt certain expectations – perceived as worthy but dull – and a degree of over-thinking. While Electric Rosary touches on themes such as sacrifice and the worrying impact of technological advancement it demonstrates the perils of making such assumptions by being eccentrically charming and very funny.
St Grace’s Convent is in severe decline with only a handful of nuns, an acting mother superior, a shrinking congregation, and insufficient funds to undertake a planned pilgrimage to the convent’s spiritual homeland. Acting Mother Elizabeth (Jo Mousley) agrees to accept a robot named Mary (Breffni Holahan) for purely secular reasons- she attracts a bursary and will undertake chores. The decision is controversial, technophobic Sister Constance (Olwen May) makes her disapproval clear and, in the wider community, the impact of automation and robotics upon the jobs market is generating unrest, even violence. Yet Mary’s practical abilities seem a Godsend; until she begins to experience supernatural, even Divine, visions.
Writer Foley discreetly sets a dark, almost apocalyptic, context for the play. Mention is made in passing of severe weather conditions, food shortages and the presence in the neighbourhood of robot workers and riots but Foley concentrates on the humorous developments within the convent. Despite the name ‘Mary’ having Christian connotations the themes of the play are secular rather than spiritual. Any member of the audience could relate to the fears of Sister Philippa (Suzette Llewellyn) that Mary’s superior cleaning abilities will render her skills redundant. No effort is made to use the robot as symbolic of efforts by the Church to modernise and widen its appeal.
The dialogue is drily witty mainly communicated by Olwen May’s world-weary and cynical Sister Constance enquiring if the nuns have given up standards for Lent and suggesting praying to the Patron Saint of Lost Things for dignity. When required, however, the dialogue can be sharp and devastating: the boast “I am a conduit” gets the response “You are a void”. The humour is not limited to verbal with a gloriously silly visual running gag on Mary’s cleaning innovations.
The cast is excellent; Saroja-Lily Ratnavel plays Sister Theresa for laughs, shamelessly stealing scenes with an over-eager personality and compulsively confessing to sins which amount to little more than clumsiness. The stand-out is, however, Breffni Holahan’s eerily human robot. Holahan’s mannerisms – artificially cheerful voice, head cocked to the side, arms swirling when ‘rebooting’ and adopting the speech patterns of those with whom she speaks – are oddly convincing and a bit unnerving. When Mother Elizabeth observes “We are all imperfect aren’t we?” the permanently smiling Mary ominously replies “No”.
Although the play concerns the detrimental impact of technology, director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart sets an atmosphere which is intentionally, perhaps defiantly, low-tech – the not-so-special effect of Mary’s supernatural vision is achieved by the actor being blasted by an extremely visible leaf blower. The miraculous vision in the second act is endearingly homemade rather than spectacular and also leaves the audience wondering, for most of the act, why whacking great chains have been attached to the corners of the stage. The intrusion of rioters (a pair instead of a mob) into the convent is underwhelming rather than threatening.
With a running time nudging three hours the play comes close to wearing out its welcome but remains fresh and funny. Electric Rosary might not renew your religious faith, but it will certainly cheer you up.
Runs Until 14 May 2022