Context is all. When Nigel Dennis’s satirical play premiered at the Royal Court in 1957 it was met with a number of boos of outrage amid the applause. Half a century on, in Sam Walters’ revival at the Orange Tree, the play, a condensed and cynical canter through the creation of a religion, lacks the same outrage factor; it’s more like a small child making a big noise in restaurant and revelling in the attention.
In an unnamed African country, the colonial Comptons, having accidentally killed the local river god by building a dam, decide to create their own replacement to keep the natives in check. hey imbue their new project with a back-story and with commandments and, inspired by the constant lowing of cattle outside the window of their wicker-furnished sitting room, they name their deity Moo.
In the Second Act Dennis shunts events forwards a couple of years to the point where the Moovian religion has grown into a cult complete with red-robed followers who are not averse to the odd human sacrifice in order to keep their god happy. When a pair of English interlopers arrives to find out what has become of the Comptons, they are shocked and appalled by what they find. To achieve this dramatic shift, the lighting designer John Harris has bathed the Orange Tree stage in red while set designer Tim Meacock has adorned it with cows’ skulls; the Comptons’ wicker furniture meanwhile has been turned into a makeshift pulpit.
In the final scenes of the play, we are presented with the next step along the path. The Moovian faith has shed the blood-hungry and drum-beating fervour of its youth and become aged, staid and respectable. It now has deacons and missionaries to spread its message; there are even some Moovian converts in London and wealthy philanthropists arrive from abroad bearing their chequebooks – yet the play ends with a downbeat glimmer that there might be a fundamentalist resurgence on the cards, that this period of tea and cakes tranquillity is only an interlude and that Moo and its more ardent followers might soon demand more blood.
As satire, this is fairly broad and heavy-handed stuff that seems childishly pleased with the extremes to which it is willing to go (William, the Comptons’ manservant turned very reluctant Pope of Moo, is forced to wear a giant phallus and a silly hat). But its in dealing in extremes that it lets itself down; the writing contains flashes of wit and invention but Dennis seems to get carried away in his wish to give religion a good kicking and he contents himself (mostly) with swiping at easy targets and reducing complex ideas to basic generalities, rather than digging deeper under the skin of what it means to believe.
The play generates a fair few flutters of laughter and Walters’ reasonably brisk production is aided by committed performances from Philip York and Amanda Royle as the socks-and-sandals-sporting colonial engineer and his wife, turned Moovian patriarch and holy mouthpiece (therefore, for her at least, acquiring a freedom of thought and voice denied to her as a colonial wife). But it hasn’t aged particularly well; it's hard to discern the tiger-like thing that Kenneth Tynan described, as it hits its audience over the head repeatedly with its ideas - for every sharp and well-targeted dig, there are several clumsy hammer blows.
Reviewed for musicOMH