Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Sanctuary Lamp at the Arcola

Tom Murphy’s bleak but tender play is said to have caused outrage after its first performance in 1975. Yet it’s far from being an attack on the Church; it’s a more questioning and layered piece of writing than that, as demonstrated by the playwright’s revival of his own work for the b*spoke theatre company.

The play concerns three characters from society’s margins who seek solace in an empty church overnight. In need of a place to stay, former strongman Harry is given a job as church clerk, and charged with keeping the sanctuary lamp lit. Also taking refuge in the church is Maudie, a waif-like and simply spoken teenage runaway, shaken by the loss of her child.

They are joined by Francisco, Harry’s one-time circus colleague and a rival for the affections of Olga the contortionist. As the night passes, bolstered by fishn and chips and communion wine, they share their stories and make their confessions to one another.

Robert O’Mahoney is bass-voiced and kindly as Harry, his character’s spiritual need palpable, while Declan Conlon is more volatile as Francisco, railing against the Church with his own particular logic, and Kate Brennan is suitably delicate as Maudie, a girl in search of answers of her own. Swaddled in a choirister's robe she looks appropriately ethereal as the third member of this somewhat twisted trinity. Bosco Hogan's Monsignor, on the other hand, is little more than a pleasant but ineffectual adminisatrator type who is, crucially, absent when the talk turns to matters of the soul.

Monica Frawley’s set, with its three thick 'stone' pillars, its pews and confessional, creates a sense of height and space in the Arcola’s rather squat-ceilinged main studio that is convincingly church-like.

Murphy's production of his own material is more problematic; it's rather monotonous and plodding in pace, which has the effect of downplaying the richness of writing.

Slighty extended version of a review for The Stage

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