The Gabriels is an intriguing title that conjures up images of the Archangel (who in the Bible announced the impending birth of Jesus to his mother, Mary) in all his feathered glory. And indeed he duly appears in the first scene of Australian writer Van Badham's new play as a slightly malevolent force.
But the plurality of the title refers to the wider subject of modern genetics and the great leaps that have recently been made in science that have thrown up amazing possibilities, some of which are explored in the play (IVF allowing gay couples to have their own children, stem cell research on embryos, cloning). However with this new knowledge comes a new set of moral and ethical problems, all of which seem to descend on Lisa (aka Bonnet) a writer of sci-fi lesbian erotica and comics, her lover Jane, and their extended family over an Easter weekend.
As family weekends from hell go, this one proves to be off the scale as people with diametrically opposed viewpoints are forced to spend time together. Not only is Bonnet and Jane's own relationship under strain (their young child Felix, who was conceived by IVF and who now has special needs, is a disappointment to Jane and she is unable to cope) but Felix's fathers (gay couple Jerry and Allen) have also arrived. Allen is unable to speak since his operation for throat cancer, an operation which has hit his partner hard. But the real cat among the pigeons comes in the form of Bonnet's grown-up son, Jude and his new girlfriend, Ginger, a devout Christian who, we are led to believe, will disapprove of her potential in-law's set-up.
But our expectations are confounded. Though Ginger likes to say grace before meals and has a disdain for Bonnet's writing, she is far from being a brainwashed automaton. She is happy to drink tea made from 'weed' with Allen. She went against her religious principles by sleeping with Jude and is willing to tackle the issues hurled at her head-on.
The real conflict comes between Jerry (previously a scientist, now a science journalist) and Jude, over the thorny issue of stem-cell research. Jerry, fuelled by his grief that Allen might die, believes he could be saved if people weren't so emotive about the use of embryos in research. Jude, fuelled by his new-found Catholicism, takes the view that embryos shouldn't be used and storms off into the night leaving his girlfriends stranded and his mother devastated.
The central story is underpinned by a parallel tale conjured up by Bonnet's imagination. One of the comics she is writing is set in a future where the country is ruled by Christian fundamentalists with all that entails. IVF treatment is banned, as is any kind of research on embryos. There follows an unpleasant tale of what might happen in such a case. The fundamentalists are in a quandary about what to do with all those unwanted frozen embryos (many of which are defective) so they implant them in "good Christian wombs" with disastrous consequences. Though the content is serious, the tone is lighter and provides a good balance against all the strife played out on the main stage.
The fine cast play about thirty parts between them, making each character suitably distinct. Anna Steel has a difficult job in making a devout Christian sympathetic but she achieves this through a mixture of exuberance and openness.
The play is obviously well-researched. The intricacies of stem cell research are certainly challenging for a playwright but Badham's parallel stories are a good way of expanding the issues without the audience feeling an agenda is being shoved down its collective throat. It's certainly politically driven, but each character's viewpoint is given its own voice.
Helen Eastman's direction brings out all the nuances of Christian imagery in the play - the driving rainstorm lent a sense of catastrophe that was akin to Noah's flood; while Bonnet washing Jerry's feet is reminiscent of Mary Magdalene's gesture with Jesus. The set, designed by James Cotterill and lit by Neill Brinkworth, made excellent use of the small space to allow the cast to tell the parallel stories with ease. Cotterill's framing of the futuristic story behind a wall with cut-out windows gives us an additional comic-book perspective.
At times the play felt in danger of being over-packed with unresolved issues (Jane's dysfunctional relationship with her special needs child is a play in itself) but it was so well-layered and structured that this is just a quibble. The Finborough have done well in choosing to stage the premiere of this writer's latest work.
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart