Writer: Brian Mullin
Director: Lisa Cagnacci
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
In a run-down area of a New Jersey city, a Roman Catholic mission that serves as a refuge for women in distress is under threat from property developers. It may seem strange that American writer Brian Mullin’s play centring on the mission is getting its World Premiere so far from its spiritual home, but he is a member of the 503Five Writer-in-Residence scheme and Battersea also knows a thing or two about urban regeneration.
The mission is run by the cantankerous battle-axe Bernie (Sister Bernadette). Aged 70 and needing regular dialysis, she forgoes conventional habits in favour of a bright red Che Guevara t-shirt, peppers her conversations with expletives and hides illegal substances inside books of poetry. Mullin portrays her as a modern-day martyr, but others might argue that she is a relic from the past. Either way, she is a class sister act and Maggie McCarthy’s performance does her full justice.
All the action takes place in the attic above the mission, Bernie’s shabby kitchen/sitting room being realised nicely in Katharine Heath’s set design. Mostly we see Bernie sparring with the three other characters: Felicia, a gutsy abused teenager whom she tutors, is played with appealing energy by Anita-Joy Uwajeh; Deirdra Morris always looks duplicitous as Joanne, a newly widowed former nun returning to the mission after a long absence, her divided loyalties making her a Judas figure; and Father Grady (James Tucker), the mission’s landlord, a parish priest cast by the writer as the villain of the piece.
Mullin paints a picture of a church that is now detached from its own institutions. Both sides have become pragmatic to adapt to the modern world, but they interpret the faith that underpins them very differently. Bernie’s mission connects with life on the streets and criminal gangs, Grady’s church cosies up to big business; his plan includes converting the sleeping quarters for the mission’s “clients” into a coffee bar, so as to generate revenue.
Thematically, there are echoes of Shaw’s Major Barbara, but Shavian-style wit surfaces only occasionally. Mullin creates strong characters, but the narrative drive of his play falters, its direction is inconsistent and, most crucially, the drama takes far too long to gain any sort of momentum. Director Lisa Cagnacci’s pedestrian production finds little to liven things up, as opportunities that exist to inject dramatic tension are bypassed. Key characters (the property developer, the gang leader) are only talked about and a pivotal scene in which Bernie confronts a planning committee takes place off stage.
Midway through the second act, there comes a moment of irreverent humour to treasure. Bernie and Joanne, both children of the 60s, sit smoking pot and howling with laughter as they recall their escapades together as novice nuns. This short scene is joyful but, for most of the time, we just wait in hope for the spark that will ignite a plodding drama and we wait in vain.
Runs until 11 June 2016 | Image: Contributed