Creators: Dank Parish
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
On paper, this immersive show sounds very good; A play which will challenge our well-established mourning rituals, and which will endeavour to create new ones for the 21stCentury. And as we join the funeral procession along the graffitied tunnel under Waterloo station, we are full of trepidation of what will follow. But despite this exciting beginning, The Church of the Sturdy Virgin never lives up to its potential.
The procession, complete with a coffin and pallbearers, makes its way down to the end of the tunnel where a vault under the railway line has been turned into a church with pews and an altar. Side rooms have been converted into graveyards or undertakers’ parlours while other actors crouch weeping at makeshift shrines. The aesthetic is varied with gravediggers Doug and Ashley dressed in traditional Victorian garb, while the rest of the cast carry a neo-Victorian style, Gothic and Tim Burtonesque.
Once arranged on the pews, the actors split us up into three groups that represent the three families attending the upcoming funeral. If you are lucky (?), you may be picked to play the corpse in the open coffin, and enjoy a different journey through the story than the rest of the audience members. Each dynasty must choose its own name and its own secrets, and with these we move into the side-rooms for more intimate experiences.
We learn how to dig a grave, or how to embalm a body, but soon we realise that these side-rooms are really side-shows and they have no bearing on the play’s outcome. It really doesn’t matter how quickly we can fill a casket full of earth, or how coherently we can decipher messages from beyond the grave. They are fun, but it’s hard to be invested in these diversions that often seem there only to fill up the 80 minutes.
It’s a relief to be back in the church where Pastor Caleb presides. Camp and devilish, Caleb is both hypnotic and a little scary and the plot seems to move forward when we are with him. It’s inside his church where we sing too, but the hymnbook is not full of the usual Christian tunes but instead it contains some expertly selected pop songs. For example, there’s Amy Winehouse’s Rehab alongside David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and it’s surprisingly easy to sing as loud as you can to these anthems. They say the Devil has the best tunes.
But despite the singing and the efforts of the committed cast, The Church of the Sturdy Virgin doesn’t go anywhere and funeral rituals are only discussed in the shallowest of ways. For this show to work Dank Parish Theatre Company need to carry out a lot more research on how we deal with death and grief, and it may work to their advantage if they could develop the darker elements of the show. We want to think, not just laugh.
Runs until 17 March 2019 | Image: Contributed