In The Heights, director Luke Sheppard returns to Southwark Playhouse - the Little space this time - with something a lot more intimate and thoughtful. In Geoffrey Nauffts' Next Fall, Adam (Charlie Condou) has been living with boyfriend Luke (Martin Delaney) for a few years, and their relationship seems strong despite a major point of disagreement that's persisted since the day they met: Adam is an atheist but Luke is a committed, Evangelical Christian who has managed to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, and is still hopeful of converting his boyfriend. Their relationship is told in flashback, as we first meet Adam in a hospital waiting room after his partner's been in a serious car accident. His friend Holly (Sirine Saba) is little support in the face of Luke's bigoted father Butch.
"Next Fall" is Luke's standard reply to when he's going to come out to his parents, but by the time of his accident Butch (Mitchell Mullen) and Arlene (Nancy Crane) still don't know that Adam is his long-term partner, so it's a struggle for him to even be allowed into the room to see him.
Sheppard's production is sensitive and the chemistry between Condou and Delaney warm, but it doesn't disguise some huge problems I had with the script. Gay Christians do of course exist and how they reconcile these two sides of themselves is an interesting topic, but Luke just doesn't feel plausible. Perhaps it's the case that Nauffts himself or his partner is a gay Evangelical Christian who believes in the literal word of the Bible and the Rapture, but those are views very much on the extreme end of the religious spectrum, and I would have expected at the very least more of an obvious struggle to make sense of himself. Instead, Luke's confident he can sin repeatedly with Adam as long as he feels sorry for it and prays afterwards, which starts to approach more Catholic ideas of confession and absolution.
Essentially Luke is picking and choosing between different flavours of Christianity for a combination that means he's always right about everything, and since he's not called out on it he looks less like a character, more like a collection of beliefs assembled for dramatic convenience by the playwright. Condou and Delaney's best efforts make you almost buy the two as a couple, but since most of what we see of their life together is their recurring religious argument, I struggled to see why they were together. Adam jokingly suggests he's only in it for the hot sex with a much younger man, but in reality there's little in the way of a more plausible reason offered.
The rest of the cast is equally strong - Mullen is unrecognisable from his role in Superior Donuts in the same theatre earlier this year, Saba provides some comic moments and Crane is the face of uncertainty in the middle of all the utter conviction from the men in her life. The relevance of Ben Cura's Brandon becomes apparent in the second act, after he spends the entire first act as some bloke in the background with a Bible who's there for unspecified reasons (of course, Cura was in Viva For A Couple Of Months, so he'll know all about being where he's not wanted.) His discussion with Adam about whether it's sex or love that's the real sin here opens an area that might have been a more interesting avenue to explore than what we actually get. I have little to criticise about the cast or production but they're labouring on a play that just doesn't ring true, and ends with the unpleasant taste of trying to convert the audience as well.
Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts is booking until the 25th of October at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.