Mass Appeal

Bill C. Davis
Finborough
(2006)

Publicity image

For as long as celibacy among priests remains a tenet of the Catholic Church, Bill C. Davis's play will have a topical resonance. Since Davis first wrote the play in the early eighties, a series of high profile sexual scandals, including paedophilia, have dogged the Church so it is an interesting time to review the relevance of 25 year old play.

First performed in New York in 1981, the play is a two-hander between Fr Tim Farley (played by Kevin Colson) and the seminarian Mark Dolson (played by Brendan Patricks). From the outset these two clash. Dolson, idealistic and self-righteous, has a thinly disguised disdain for all that Farley stands for. Farley, a parish priest, leads a comfortable existence where the parishioners are well enough off to fund his penchant for fine red wine and where he rules supreme. But he is indulgent of Dolson's youthful intolerance, perhaps because he sees something of himself in the young man's idealism. When Dolson gets into trouble with his superiors, Farley steps in to help out and becomes his mentor.

However, Farley's own way of life comes under threat as Dolson confides his sexual past (with both men and women) to him. Farley advises him to lie about it to his superiors if he wishes to become a priest. Dolson refuses and his vocation is therefore shortlived and he is summarily expelled from his college. Farley is forced to decide whether to make an appeal on Dolson's behalf to his parishioners. But the risk to his own career proves too great and too big a price to pay.

As if to underline the topicality, the action has moved from America to modern-day England, thanks to a couple of references to Camilla Parker-Bowles and Belmarsh Prison. On the whole this works well, although it's stretching it a little to imagine the packed congregations in London that Father Farley seemed to enjoy.

As recently as last November, the current pope clarified the Vatican's position on gay clergy and it was largely criticised by the homosexual community. Apparently, homosexuals can enter the priesthood, as long as their orientation is transitory and not too "deep-seated". When Mass Appeal was first performed, the question of homosexual clergy was very much swept under the carpet, so it is interesting that the play is even more relevant in the light of current doctrine.

Brendan Patricks gives a sympathetic portrayal of the earnest young man who believes he can make a difference to people's lives through his ministry. His abrasive manner at the outset gives way to an inner maturity so that the audience finally cares that he has been prevented from achieving his goal because of a lack of tolerance in the church's hierarchy. Patricks is effective in conveying an almost teenage-like bolshiness, underpinned by a personal quest to help his fellow man. Kevin Colson is very moving as the alcoholic parish priest who has long since abandoned his principles for comfort though, at times, the performance was a little lacking in pace.

But the real charm of the play is the effect that both these characters have on each other. At the start they are implacable opposites but by the end each has sufficiently changed the other for the better.

Director Drew Ackroyd's use of the audience as the congregation worked well and Atlanta Duffy's set was so convincing that when Farley addressed his congregation from the pulpit, I almost felt the need to bless myself

Running until 22nd April

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart