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God in Ruins

Anthony Neilson
RSC production
Soho Theatre
(2007)

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Anthony Neilson's plays are unlike those of any other writer today. They do, however, regularly have great similarities to other plays that he has written in the past. Once Neilson has an idea, either of subject matter or form, he will worry away at it for play after play.

As a result, God in Ruins can feel like a trip down memory lane for Neilson aficionados and in particular, could be regarded as a Yuletide rerun of his Edinburgh International Festival hit, Realism. That play, like this new one, explored what it is like to be a run of the mill, middle-aged man on the slide, in the early years of the third millennium.

After a lovely little prologue featuring Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit three years on from the end of A Christmas Carol, we are thrust into the sad existence of Irish TV producer/scriptwriter Brian Wilkins, the man behind such wondrous reality TV shows as Pimp My Pooch and Chimp Monastery. His life has fallen apart thanks to a cocktail of drink and drugs and, as a consequence, his wife and young daughter have not only run off but exorcised him.

Brian is, like many of the characters, played by an acting namesake, in this case Brian Doherty. As was the case in Realism, he is observed through his own inner thoughts so that we spend ninety minutes observing a stream of unconscious consciousness, in what is clearly intended to be a contemporary response to Dickens' novel.

The action is episodic, and builds knowledge of what it is like to be Brian and to move in his social circle. Eventually, he even draws in dear old Ebenezer, whose own experiences help our anti-hero to sort out his life, at least in cyberspace.

While the comedy can be uneven, much of it is very funny and frequently original. After the anti-Scrooge whose generosity ("What's the point of money if not to spend it?") gets on Bob Cratchit's nerves far more than his miserliness ever did, Brian proves himself at least equal to the original, coming across as someone sharing the less savoury aspects of Dickens' epitome of meanness and Molière's famous misanthrope, Alceste.

This 21st century Christmas curmudgeon's main problem, though, is feeling sorry for himself, which he enhances by keeping his finger permanently on the self-destruct button. He makes a big mistake on Christmas Eve in taking it out on a Brummie pizza delivery man.

Not only does he get his immediate comeuppance for behaviour that is at best uncharitable, but the helmeted rider nightmarishly returns to haunt him again and again, in the most unlikely circumstances.

Brian has several other runs-in with the assortment of men who inhabit his life.

Perhaps the funniest scenes involve Brian's moaning father (played by Sam Cox), a man whose life was at least as badly messed up as the son whom he attempts to advise. That may have seemed bad but his afterlife is 300 times worse now that he has reached heaven, hell or limbo as the case may be, one deserted wife having been replaced by 300 nagging ones that are eternally present.

It is not just dad's ghost that makes Brian reconsider his values. He also struggles to come to terms with AA style group counselling, confusing the individuals around the room with characters from his life. In case we felt cheated by a lack of political direction, there is even a dead soldier fresh from Basra introduced entirely gratuitously.

In addition to earthly and celestial experiences, Brian also has two encounters in cyberspace. The first owes much to Patrick Marber's legendary cybersex scene in Closer but the other is a true original. This closes the play, allowing Brian to follow Scrooge on the road to cathartic happiness. There he meets his daughter, or at least her Avatar, in a robotic Sim City disco chatroom, amusingly slowed down by the inefficiencies of his computer.

God in Ruins - the term apparently a less than favourable synonym for man - is wildly inventive and, on occasions, too much so, as Neilson, who also directs, repeatedly deconstructs his own play.

Despite some shortcomings, it has enough freshness and life to make viewers reconsider their own ways of life and presents a very different take on Christmas from pantomimes and saccharine children's melodramas. Thus, it is a welcome a glass of Christmas cheer, at least to those with Scrooge-like tendencies.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher