Jesus: The Wasted Years
Old Red Lion Theatre
The title of Robert Meakin's new play asks us to place it mentally alongside such controversial fare as Jerry Springer: The Opera. However it has not quite got to grips with the concept that controversy is more than just blasphemy. Blasphemy - taking the lord's name in vain - happens every day; controversy is interesting.
Meakin's setup basically anthropomorphises the gods, to give us a sub-BBC sitcom set in heaven. God (Andrew Neil) is a doddery, partially-deaf, grumpy old gent who has been reduced to ineffectually "overseeing" the world, and having to solicit the celebrity inhabitants of Heaven for the opportunity to make public appearances at their "dos". Saint Peter (Iain Dootson), the semi-Polonius of the piece, patiently takes the deity through his daily schedule, and updates him on the behaviour of his son. This Jesus, played by Meakin, is a sorry picture: a drunken waster, forever brandishing wine in a water bottle ("one I made earlier"), working his way through Heaven's female A-list, and generally bored and directionless. God, following Peter's advice, makes an appearance on Sky News to try and boost his leadership's flagging reputation. His disastrous, fumbling appearance is the catalyst for Jesus to start considering ousting the old fellow and establishing himself in his place.
Meanwhile the devil has managed to sneak his way into Heaven under an alias - but he swears he has renounced his evil ways, and he and Jesus have become good friends. It is their attempted partnership to bid for the leadership of Heaven that is the main meat of the play. The notion is that God is so hopelessly out of touch and unable to play the modern PR game, that the devil winds up looking much the better of the two. Ryan Hurst does very well to make Satan a likeable figure: he brings a nobility and composure that make you feel you might have been persuaded too. It is a neat topical moment when the devil's protestations that he has no intention of challenging God's leadership, only help to increase his popularity among supporters on Earth.
But this really is Meakin's only good idea. A tedious sub-plot has the Virgin Mary (Helen Bang) returning to Heaven to rekindle her relationship with God, leaving Jesus feeling all the more uncomfortable. He eventually reconciles with his "parents" and agrees to return to Earth for the Second Coming, only to find it may not be as easy as he thought. But this is where the play leaves off: any hope we had of another modern Second Coming story to rival Russell T Davies's TV film from a few years ago is dashed. The over-expository nature of the dialogue is a real problem: several times, a fact that we the audience already know is relayed two or three times more in front of us.
The pacing of scenes is also at fault, with some jokes laboured over while other quite good gags (the devil's apocalyptic ringtone for instance) are skipped over. Finally there is the issue of the play's shape, which is chopped into dozens of bitty scenes gradually inching the plot along. In the Old Red Lion room with its two exit doors, scene changes can never be entirely smooth and seamless, but the frequent changes here are not helped by long pauses while actors move on or off, and brutal lighting changes making us wonder if the interval has suddenly hit.
The central moral seems to be, quite reasonably, that we shouldn't let ourselves be seduced by politicians who can simply talk the talk, while having who knows what hidden motivations. But the play towards the end seems to argue explicitly in favour of an unglamourous, un-media-savvy, safe pair of hands, as opposed a slippery, well-presented showman who certainly has the X factor but whose integrity is zero. Are we to take this as pro-Brown and anti-Cameron; or even anti-Obama (the Devil reads his autobiography while in the political ascendancy)? I certainly don't want to put words in Meakin's mouth but only to highlight the confusedness of the message: in the play God doesn't do much of a job to suggest him as the ultimate best choice. There is some enjoyment to be had in this play from watching heavenly figures embarrass themselves in all manner of ways. But as I said, blasphemy is a fairly one-tier joke.
Until 13th June
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury