"Birmingham witnesses a revival as Church attendances soar." Or, to be more specific, audiences at the city's Repertory Theatre are up by more than 90 per cent under the new artistic directorship of Jonathan Church. And those needing some convincing that Britain's second city has a serious claim now to the title of European Capital of Culture should snap up a ticket for the revival of David Hare's Racing Demon.
The play, part of a state-of-the-nation trilogy, was originally written for the National Theatre where it was first performed in 1993, together with The Absence of War, which focuses on a contemporary Labour leader coming to the painful conclusion that he is unelectable and Murmuring Judges, which takes a look at the criminal justice system in England. Birmingham's is the first regional premiere of these plays.
Racing Demon, the first in the trilogy, places the Church of England under the microscope and the first thing to say about the play is that it's very entertaining. It's also impeccably performed by a cast headed by Jack Shepherd, best known for his title role in the TV detective series Wycliffe. However, the second half sees the play gain a moral force and passion as it looks at what role the Church of England has to play in modern society. Is the focus salvation; bums on pews and, if not; what relevance does it have?
As the play opens, the Rev Lionel Espy, marvellously played by Shepherd, is facing criticism from the Bishop of Southwark (Hugh Ross) over his leadership of his inner city team ministry. Espy, benighted, doubt-ridden, no longer knows what he believes except, perhaps, that priests should listen to their parishioners for whom they are sometimes the only person they can turn to. But what help they can offer is limited. "Is that it?" asks one who has recently undergone an abortion and whose marriage is in crisis.
New recruit Rev Tony Ferris (John Hodgkinson), however, has other ideas. Frustrated by the apparent futility of his duties he takes a decidedly evangelical turn but in doing so he becomes an unwitting pawn in the hands of the Bishop of Southwark who determines to oust Espy despite a pledge of secure tenure,
There is first-rate support from Paul Raffield as the Rev Donald 'Streaky' Bacon and Timothy Kightley as the Rev Harry Henderson. I have reservations about some aspects of the play. The idea of a liaison between Henderson and the impossibly dashing Ewan Gilmour, played by Michael Wildman, is totally unconvincing. And the role of Frances Parnell, (another fine performance, by Carolyn Backhouse) is a little too dramatically pat. But there are some beautifully piercing moments such as the one, at the end of the play where Espy reaches out to his wife Heather (Linda Broughton), only to be rebuffed. It is too late.
Tribute too needs to be paid to the designer, Ruari Murchinson, whose set is elegantly spare and witty; lights under the floor forming variously a crucifix for the church interior and the dance floor of a club.
In the accompanying programme, David Hare pays tribute to Jonathan Church; noting that in just eighteen months he has transformed the Rep into the most popular and best-spoken of theatre in the Midlands. It is a deserved accolade for a young director who could well do for the company what Simon Rattle did for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, should look to its laurels.
Reviewer: Pete Wood