The Shoreditch Madonna

Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Soho Theatre
(2005)

Last year, Rebecca Lenkiewicz won the Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright for The Night Season at the National. It is therefore inevitable that her new play, Shoreditch Madonna, has been one of the most eagerly-awaited of 2005.

With a couple of minor criticisms, in particular regarding the lack of development of some of the secondary characters, it gets close to living up to those very high expectations.

This is a play with depths that are very well hidden for the first hour or so but which are eventually plumbed to reach a satisfactorily upbeat ending.

Shoreditch Madonna is a combination of fairy tale and modern reworking of biblical themes. It is carried by the eccentric character of Devlin, played by Leigh Lawson. This very loud, hairy man is the epitome of the artist gone mad. We first see him looking and sounding like a raging tramp, while being videoed by a group of young would-be film makers.

Soon, an old flame and another ageing hippy, Francesca Annis' Martha (or Martyr in Devlin's Irish brogue) arrives on the scene. Between them, they transform the lives of all six of the play's characters.

One of the Miss Lenkiewicz' main themes is the pain of love and this is demonstrated in almost every relationship. While one of the young film makers yearns for the love of another, he must eventually except that distant, unrequited love is his destiny.

Matters are far harder for Lee Ingleby's Hodge, a geek who is only released from painful shyness by the loss of his virginity to mature Martha. Christina played by Alexandra Moen has even greater problems. She is suicidal following the death of her coke fiend lover, Charlie. Her redemption comes about through the combined love that she finds in relationships with Devlin and Adam Croasdell's Nick.

As the two-and-a-quarter hour play develops, the threads begin to come together until, following a dramatic revelation by Martha, a happy ending becomes a certainty, signalled by Devlin's final transformation of her from "Martyr" to Madonna.

Director Sean Matthias has created a strong visual and aural impact. Paul Burgess' set appears deceptively simple until you realise that the screen running across the middle can be either diaphanous or solid, as required. The short scenes that make up Shoreditch Madonna are divided by loud bursts of music of every type, exemplified by an initial segue from a hymn into heavy metal.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz writes in beautiful, poetic language filled with very visual metaphors. At times, her message may be well hidden but this is deliberate. Shoreditch Madonna contains two outstanding characters who will live in the memory for some time and a cleverly plotted storyline. While it might benefit from a little pruning, the playwright should have a second hit on her hands with this richly thought-provoking play.

Philip Fisher