On the Third Day

Kate Betts
New Ambassadors
(2006)

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The goodwill surrounding this play was almost tangible. On opening-night, the usual selection of the great and the good were urging it on for all of the right reasons.

As the programme makes patently clear, new plays by unknown writers just do not go straight on to a West End stage, even in a smaller house like the New Ambassadors.

This was also the play that everybody knew about from the Channel 4 reality TV series, The Play's the Thing. Millions of people will have seen the three episodes leading up to the opening and fallen in love, in the nicest possible way, with playwright Kate Betts who so obviously wanted to have her fifteen minutes of theatrical fame by winning this rather bizarre and artificial contest.

For those who are not in the know, The Play's the Thing set out on a search for a new play that was good enough to succeed in the West End. This is the stage equivalent of those perennial Find a Fast Bowler competitions that rarely come up with somebody of first class standard let alone a Test player to save English cricket.

As the chair of judges and producer, Sonia Friedman made clear at the start, she did not have any faith in even one of the 2,000 entries being up to the requisite standard by opening night. Worse, her colleague, the agent Mel Kenyon, does not believe in diplomatic silence and ripped into even those plays that she had selected for the shortlist.

Both were present at the opening, along with most of the writers of plays on the long list, presumably many silently grieving over the opportunity that they had missed.

Sonia Friedman and her creative team have done Kate Betts proud. The production qualities and commitment shown by all concerned do them credit and make the very best that is possible from a play now entitled On the Third Day, rather than its far more enticing working title during the TV series, Playing Jesus.

An uncomfortable Maxine Peake plays Claire, a 30 year-old virgin nymphomaniac who can trace her social difficulties to events in childhood. As the play opens, she is unsubtly seducing Paul Hilton's Mike, a man who, with greasy hair and straggly beard, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Nazarene prophet.

Claire's early life and her current one are nicely introduced within Jon Driscoll's dramatic projections, which are accompanied by extracts from Holst's Planets Suite. This is particularly appropriate since Claire has her eyes on the stars, literally, as she is fulfilling a lifetime's dream by becoming a lecturer at the Planetarium in Greenwich.

Mike manages to cool Claire's ardour instantaneously by announcing that he is Jesus. This seems unlikely since he is far from omniscient or omnipotent, his only real talent being an inability to go away when he is not wanted.

The third main character is Claire's younger brother, Rob or Robbie, played by Tom McKay. He has taken to potholing with all the fervour of a fanatic escapist and we eventually learn why. Not only does he have a relationship with his sister that borders on the incestuous but, irrationally, he blames her for their father's death.

All comes to a head at Claire's 30th birthday dinner, clearly intended to bring to mind the Last Supper, although a swanky restaurant with a silly waiter smacks of desperation. Thanks to Mike's efforts at reconciliation, the siblings are brought together for an embarrassing shouting match that inexplicably develops into a food fight.

It is painful to have to report that despite tremendous efforts from director, Robert Delamere, his strong cast and talented designer Mark Thompson who cleverly and simply flies the accoutrements of a flat on to the set with a minimum of fuss, the play is very much not the thing.

In almost every respect, Kate Betts could do better. Her characters do not come to life, many of the Jesus jokes are unoriginal and even with the help of some of the best play doctors in the business, the storyline fails to excite.

This has been a brave, if slightly cynical, attempt to invigorate a London stage. It is just such a pity that the pick of plays on offer has not introduced us to a new David Hare, Caryl Churchill or Tom Stoppard.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for On the Third Day.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher