The Whingers have a confession to make: They don’t really “do” religion.
However, Andrew is frequently to be seen on his knees before curtain-up, praying like Bob Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone: “Please, God, let this be short”.
Phil did try religion for a while. His interest was first engaged by the free wine and wafers at the local Anglican church but when a lock was added to the cupboard in the vestry and his Ikea bistro table and chair removed, he was forced to review his faith and converted to Catholicism.
Here the principal attraction was a guaranteed ear and for several weeks he could be found, in widow’s garb, first in the queue each morning for the confession box at the Kentish Town Cathedral. Here he regaled the hapless priests with his theatre anecdotes for hours on end.
Challenged to confess something more heinous than wishing Elaine Paige would trip over her tail during a performance of Cats he over-reacted, confessing to confess to just about every major unsolved crime of the 20th century.
Anyway, none of this prevented the now decidedly secular Whingers from invoking silent supplications that Roger Crane’s The Last Confession at the Theatre Royal Haymarket might prove to be an enjoyable night out.
Not having seen a decent thriller for a while they decided that on paper, or possibly parchment or scroll, a play exploring the mysterious events in 1978 when the liberal new Pope John Paul, “the smiling Pope” died a mere thirty-three days after his election might be just the thing.
But God moves in mysterious ways and when Phil arrived at the TKTS booth to find that the best available seats were in Row X of the stalls, he sensed an omen and – his eyesight also not being up to sitting so far away from the action – bailed out of the evening’s entertainment leaving Andrew and Would-be Whinger Neil to struggle with theology without him.
Now, attentive readers will recall that Neil has an active interest in religion in general and the Catholic church in particular, The Godfather being his favourite film trilogy of all time. This interest recently back-fired horribly when he was drafted in by Andrew to endure The Last Priest at the King’s Head, Islington. But he’s a game lad (not to mention a slow learner) and agreed to fill in for Phil once again.
The first surprise of the evening was that the stalls at least were packed to bursting with coughing Poirot-lovers keen to see David Suchet in a completely different role – this time investigating a mysterious death with an unfeasibly large number of suspects.
So, anyway, to the plot. When a local and unpopular Pope is found dead in his bed at the Vatican from an apparent heart attack just 33 days into his reign, the main response among his colleagues is one of relief.
However, Cardinal Benelli (Suchet) refuses to take things at face value and succeeds in inveigling himself into an investigation of the death, investigating witnesses and suspects and generally using his little grey cells.
It’s a complete departure for Suchet who not only does not sport a moustache, but also wears a dress.
It’s a great story, but the problem is that it would appear that the author started off writing a whodunnit and – possibly under the advisement of his lawyers – thought better of it. Having failed to introduce any discernible coherent themes, Crane is obliged to wrap the play up with some rather woolly musings about “faith” and – sorry to spoil it for you – the rather lame conclusion that “We all killed the Pope”. At this point Neil – ever the card – leaned across and whispered, “No, he’s thinking of Murder on the Orient Express.”
The performances are adequate, although Suchet seems understandably underwhelmed by the material.
The lack of any variety in tone of the super-abundant dialogue fails to hold the attention. Andrew didn’t actually nod off on this occasion although this was mainly because he was kept awake by the snoring of the woman in front of him.
Suchet seemed quite happy with the audience’s clapping, however, and bowed graciously with a touch of happy emotional exhaustion across his face in the manner of one having just played the leads in a draining triple bill of Macbeth, Othello and King Lear.
Anyway, there are simply far too many men on the stage – about 18 of them in fact- and just one token female, Sister Vincenza, played by Ian Richardson’s widow Maroussia Frank (“My old Mother Superior used to say a nun’s best way to heaven was on her knees – praying or scrubbing”).
One of the most impressive things about the production is actually the set by Ian Shuttleworth’s favourite designer William Dudley which has more doors than a French farce and some very impressive steps running the entire width of the stage.
Sorry, Yvette, but this one didn’t push any buttons at all and failed once again to restore the faith of the West End Whingers in thrillers specifically or the the West End Theatre in general.