Writers: Anne Bartram
Directors: John Mitton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Our relationship with the Church has long fascinated us and its close association with government, wealth and power is centuries old. While on the one hand religions operate at an international level working across boundaries of nationality and culture to unite the faithful, they are also about deeply personal engagements for the individual with whatever rites, rituals or deities they believe it. Anne Bartram’s new comedy That Catholic Thing considers the ‘impact of the church when run as a business’ on a small Irish community.
The play opens with Maurice dragging a body across the stage to bury in the garden. The next morning we meet his sister, devoted Catholic, Louise, in the early stages of pregnancy, who fusses around the new priest Father Neville.
Maurice is an atheist until he dreams God has given him a message for the world and when Maurice finds a religious image on a piece of bacon, he believes he is a prophet, the new Messiah and a faith healer. As he sets up a branch of his own religion, Maurice’s actions become increasingly extreme but what effect will this have on his loved ones and traditional Catholicism?
That Catholic Thing takes a rather pointed look at organised religion and mocks the various ceremonies and superstitions that are created around it. Bartram’s writing is highly satirical, touching on topics including the spurious creation of holy relics, the use of human intermediaries between the congregation and God, multiple wives, faith healing and even evangelicalism. While this story begins with Catholicism it’s clear that Bartram wishes to universalise her themes to think more widely about the ways in which society and individuals engage in religious practices.
In the execution there are absurdist elements to this work as well, that suit the way in which the story escalates from a tiny domestic drama to something much more impactful. In doing so however some of the nuances of the characters and a number of plot points remain entirely unresolved such as the mystery of the dead body, the cruel childhood the siblings endured with their single mother, Maurice’s relationship with their neighbour, Rachel, and the hints that Maurice and Louise have had an incestuous relationship and he is the father of her child. While the conclusion is bold, funny and sharp, to have none of these secrets confirmed, revealed or resolved for the audience does feel a little frustrating so their purpose in the overall drama needs clarity.
The performances are all very good, particularly Gaz Radcliffe as Maurice who begins as a layabout entirely supported by his sister but becomes increasingly unhinged as his belief takes hold. Radcliffe throws himself into the part building to pitch of excitement for the finale. Louise Lee gives a touching performance as Louise, someone entirely devoted to her traditional faith but troubled by her guilty conscience, and completely unable to halt the events her brother sets in motion. Seamus Hewison is a perfect bumbling and arather ineffectual local priest more concerned with relics than the people in his parish, while Kane Surrey’s autistic neighbour, Mikey, is played with sensitive understatement.
Some of the most enjoyable moments come from the supporting cast with virtually no lines. Derek Tobias, Alex Nowak, Annie Walker and Neil Cameron play a range of hapless passers-by, wafty angels and homeless people who react with contempt for Maurice’s shenanigans but happily take the free food – a neat reference to the need for pragmatism over spirituality. That Catholic Thing has much to say about the role of tradition and self-determination in modern concepts of faith, and if it just picks up a few of its dramatic loose ends then it will help to amplify its clever and bizarre approach to the various building blocks of religion.
Runs until 17 July 2016 | Image: Rah Petherbridge Photography