Botticelli's Angels

Gemma Mills McGrath
The Jack Studio Theatre
The Jack Studio Theatre

Jim Conway as Frank and Dylan Kennedy as Johnny (on the table) Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Write Now, the new playwriting festival at The Jack Studio Theatre in London, is now in its second week.

The first of two staged readings of work from writers with a connection to south east London was by Gemma Mills McGrath, a resident of Bromley, down the road from the venue. But it was not this geography that informed the writing of Botticelli's Angels.

What rang through this début stage work was her Irish ancestry both because the historic events that inform the present action took place in Northern Ireland and because of the very Irishness of Frank, the central character of the play.

Largely the first act appears to be about the abuse suffered by Frank and his younger brother, Johnny, as children, and how these events resulted in their present be able to claim compensation.

Through the twists in the narrative, what emerges is a picture of the complicated damage done to Frank and Johnny and the awkwardness of a church tied up with 21st century bureaucracy.

The situation forces the inwardly troubled Frank to meet with trainee counsellor, Ursula, the volunteer outreach worker for the Church.

Although they have a point of contact sharing a love of fine art, Ursula is rapidly out of her depth. Her ineptitude reaches uncomfortably comic proportions, platitudes falling from her lips as she bungles on. When she attempts to draw a parallel between the restoration of paintings with the restorative powers of counselling, you are left wondering just who it is that needs help.

It is Johnny's voice, although bearing the illogicality of the irregular Latin verbs the boys were forced to learn at school—"hold on to us and let us go"—that provides Frank with the most apparent balm.

The first act has its own closure and the second opens as a new chapter when, sometime later, Frank and Ursula meet again by chance.

Frank's life is still conjoined with Johnny's but he has followed the bureaucratic path and received compensation. He continues to be tormented by guilt but this time the more obvious suffering is Ursula's due to the sudden death of her husband.

What happens between them is used to explore the impact of loss, the progress of grieving and the fear and sacrifice rooted in letting go.

Although the narrative reaches its conclusion with the familiar symbolic ritual of the scattering of ashes, Mills McGrath's words and Matthew Parker's careful direction do not let this become a too hackneyed catharsis.

There is one jarring scene though—which also gives away that Botticelli's Angels originally started life for a celluloid existence—set at a supermarket self–checkout. On top of that, 'bagging area malfunctions' have long since been wrung dry of comedy and are a cliché best avoided.

That writing mishap is a small shadow over a shining piece of writing; there is little else that in my view needs fixing in what is amongst the strongest new plays to emerge from The Jack's Write Now initiative.

Jim Conway gives a powerful performance as Frank. One might have accepted less for a staged reading, but the emotional investment was unstinting and moving.

Dylan Kennedy's Johnny is charming and energetic; Laura Harling fought through a nervous start to realise the role of Ursula in the second act.

Director Matthew Parker did a splendid job pacing the narrative and in counter–balancing the pathos with the humour, not letting either tip too far.

Write Now 5 comes to its climax with the full production of the winning play, Pool. The bar has been set high by Botticelli's Angels so visitors to The Jack next week should have something big to look forward to.

The performance of Max Katz's Box Chicken that would have been reviewed here unfortunately had to be cancelled due to illness.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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