Writer: Artemis Fitzalan Howard
Director: Sadie Spencer
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Death is that ‘undiscovered country’ as a plentiful supply of Hamlets has informed us this season. But what if death wasn’t so mysterious, in fact it could be rather drab. Artemis Fitzalan Howard’s new comic play Gate, showing at the Cockpit Theatre, considers modern expectations of death and belief in Christianity. This afterlife is unromantic, purgatorial and there’s a shocking lack of gold.
Eve is the Guardian of the Wapping Gate and today four strangers – Mark, Esther, Rebecca and Luke – will arrive for processing. First, she has to tell them they’re dead and then take them through a series of exercises to determine whether they’ll be heading “upstairs” or “downstairs”. But Eve is having a terrible day, husband Adam keeps phoning with domestic dramas, the new arrivals won’t play along and St Peter is not happy about her targets.
Gate is a smart and engaging 75-minute show that uses its comic coating to examine the competing concepts of traditional and more modern interpretations of Christianity. In its five central characters,
Fitzalan Howard has created an interesting combination of personalities each with their own degree of belief that draws them into some of the debates about the nature of God, and whether heaven is a worthwhile aspiration.
The waiting room idea, though familiar from films like Beetlejuice, is combined with the slightly incompetent but dedicated gatekeeper which gives it new life, and some of Gate’s best moments involve Eve’s attempts to prepare her charges for their interview stage. Like an awful Away Day, the group must pass around the ‘Ball of Shame’ and reveal their sins, while also competing in a Christianity Quiz, which becomes increasingly hilarious.
But Fitzalan Howard uses this comedy structure to engage the audience, with characters slowly reveal their doubts and insecurities, adding layers of drama and the odd poignant moment as their fears lead them to turn on each other and Eve. Interspersed with choral singers dressed as Angels, each scene builds on the idea of the group unexpectedly developing a sense of solidarity that binds them together and, by the end of the show, allows them to understand their own approach to belief.
Emma Dennis-Edwards’ Eve is a wonderful creation, mixing customer service training with a growing exasperation with her life, and Dennis-Edwards exhibits perfect comic timing throughout and builds a great rapport with the audience. Wil Coban as the entitled Mark desperate to be reunited with his lost dog, Joe McArdle as the nerdy Luke, Katie Sherrard as arrogantly devout Esther and Eleanor Henderson’s pragmatically harsh Rebecca, are a distinctly drawn group of clients who equally create interest in their own character histories as well as their role in the collective endeavour.
Gate is not a show that leaves you with any sense of certainty about what comes next, but its questioning and balanced approach to ideas of God, death and the afterlife leave you with plenty to think about, and is so subtly woven into the play that even the most hardened atheist will find plenty to enjoy. A comic treat.
Runs until 24 September 2017 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli