Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Theatre review: Doubt, a Parable

The Catholic Church is famous for its choirboy-abusing priests, but a lesser-known fact is that there’s also a system of religious beliefs attached to it. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a Parable uses the former to look into questions of the latter, in a story set in a New York convent school in 1964. Headmistress Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet) is a stern disciplinarian who’s fiercely opposed to change, ball-point pens, the song “Frosty the Snowman,” and either teachers or students actually enjoying their lessons. Her mission to crush all the joy out of young teacher Sister James (Clare Latham) has to be interrupted as she needs her help to investigate the school priest Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers,) whom she suspects of taking an inappropriate interest in the pupils. The school has just taken on its first-ever black student, and Flynn seems keen to get particularly close to him.

But with no proof, and an official complaints procedure that would automatically take the priest’s side, Aloysius has to take matters into her own hands, first by dropping hints then confronting a defiant Flynn.

Shanley’s play avoids confirming or denying outright whether Flynn is guilty, although by the end it’s been heavily implied that he is; as the title suggests, the remaining element of doubt is the point. Another question mark is over Aloysius’ motivations – in all other respects she barely seems concerned about the children’s wellbeing so this crusade seems largely motivated by her dislike for this specific priest.

Ché Walker’s production is atmospheric, taking place in the round on a cross-shaped set by PJ McEvoy, light coming up through stained glass in the floor, giving a sense of place without overwhelming the action. I must admit though to being distracted by Chambers playing Flynn as the campest priest since Graham Norton on Father Ted. In part because I expected him to Z-snap at the end of every sermon, in part because playing him so flamboyant takes “hiding in plain sight” to new levels. Add to this his affectation of growing his nails long like a shit Bond villain, and between him and the prim – though thankfully not entirely humourless – Aloysius it’s hard to find someone to root for in the central conflict.

Easier to like is Latham’s excellent Sister James, a genuine innocence and enthusiasm getting crushed by reality, while the play’s best scene sees Mrs Muller (Jo Martin,) mother of the suspected victim, confront Aloysius over the ways her crusade could actually end up harming her son. Her tacit acceptance that her son might get abused for a few months, in exchange for an education not all black kids in 1964 could expect, is the darkest and most interesting area the play explores, where elsewhere its deliberate vagueness can leave it feeling unsatisfying.

Doubt, a Parable by John Patrick Shanley is booking until the 30th of September at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke.

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