Review – Love the Sinner, National Theatre

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Won’t someone please think of the squirrels!

Some fairly heteroclite things have happened to the Whingers in the last month. But perhaps finding ourselves still seated in the National Theatre‘s Cottesloe auditorium for the curtain call topped the lot. And yes, before you ask, there was an interval.

Had Sir Nicholas Hytner done a Gordon Brown and executed a Downing Street style lock in? Had the Coin Street volcano blown causing them to extend their stay. Were they actually stranded again?

Or were they actually enjoying Drew Pautz‘s new play Love the Sinner?

Well, yes and no. But the no’s probably have it.

In an hotel, in an unspecified African country, CofE church leaders meet to discuss the need to change with the times, or not – specifically whether to permit the ordination of non-celibate homosexualists. But Christian volunteer Michael (Jonathan Cullen) who takes the minutes of the doctrinal arguments, is way ahead of them in terms of getting with the times and is having his own Ugandan discussions in his room with hotel porter Joseph (Fiston Barek). Michael is married and struggling with his sexuality and Joseph sees in Michael a way to get out of Africa and into Britain.

LTS is a rag bag of a play – all over the place, wildly uneven in writing, direction and acting. Staged on a versatile set, individual scenes switch from slackly paced, woolly discussions to (almost) compelling dramatic moments. There’s a good gag in the very opening moment of the play which holds promise but leads on to fairly non-specific arguments that follow. It was all quite abstruse and the Whingers found themselves looking for symbols where there may have been none: these people are in a big hotel. Doesn’t it have air conditioning? The delegates have big sweat stains on the backs of their shirts. Was it reading too much into their perspiration patterns to see crucifixes there?

But it’s that sort of a play. Yet despite the flaws the Whingers did want to find out what was going to happen next. In England Michael and his wife Shelly (a very odd and somewhat unbelievable performance from Charlotte Randle) discuss getting rid of the squirrels which have made a home in the couple’s soffit (Excitingly, this may be the first time the Whingers have ever heard the word “soffit” used in a play) and having a baby. Despite the moral/legal discussions about sparing the squirrels’ lives this chat is possibly meant to provoke laughs although it doesn’t. Indeed, for the first time that evening Andrew was sitting bolt upright, his concern for the fate of the squirrels etched unmistakably in the already canyon-deep furrows of his brow. Phil, meanwhile, was wrestling with possible metaphors: was there a connection between the arguments? Something to do with Shelly’s worries about the legalities of getting rid of the squirrels and Michael’s ethical concerns (or excuses) for not having IVF? Phil couldn’t work it out.

But there was no time to pause and reflect for Pautz had already lumbered onto a different track on which Michael (already suspected by his wife of becoming an evangelist) is persuading his work colleagues that their stationery business should diversify into church collection envelopes. But as he is doing so his wife arrives to inform him that Joseph has turned up at their house and demanding to know who he is. This naturally results in Shelly and Michael tearing their clothes off and almost having sex in the unlocked boardroom in what was a particularly unsightly scene and the Whingers, for once, were grateful for their faraway cheap seats in Row S .

Much of the dialogue is stilted and unbelievable and there’s a peculiar tendency to throw in non sequiturs such as the chat about cucumber sandwiches (does anyone apart from Andrew actually eat cucumber sandwiches?) in the middle of an argument. Is this meant to be realism? Here it just seems silly.

And so it went on but what Putz was getting at we have no idea. We couldn’t even swear to the key motivations of some of the major characters. Sometimes we weren’t sure what was going on: Michael’s brief encounter with Joseph in Act 1 seemed to be just that, yet in Act 2 he implies that it was more than a one off. Very puzzling. Theme-wise, there was certainly some Christianity thing going on, that’s for sure. Phil noticed that the main characters all have Biblical names. Joseph, Michael, Daniel, Simon, James, Paul, Matthew, John. But there’s nobody blessing the bed that Michael’s been lying on. Certainly not Shelly (which is a variant of Rachel in the Bible -barren before finally giving birth to Joseph – look the Whingers doing research! Write it down!)

The play’s Archbishop says “He (God) wants to reconcile the contradictions in our lives” which may be some clue to what it was about but if that’s true he’s going about it in a very roundabout way, and letting Pautz write Love The Sinner isn’t helping either.

What redeemed (Listen to us! We’ve gone all holy!) this play, though- what sets it apart somewhat from the Really Old Like 45s – is that it was refreshingly unfashionable (this is not predictable Christian-bashing) and the arguments are fairly even-handedly portrayed.

And that is why the Whingers were still there at the end. For a moment too it looked as though the play was threatening to build to a satisfactory conclusion although it didn’t and the symbolism of the ending was lost on us and the Whingers left confused. What on God’s earth was Pautz getting at? Was this about Christianity? Homosexuality?

What it turned out NOT to be about was squirrels. The entire squirrel sub-plot was summarily dropped (presumably it was deemed too political a hot potato even for the National Theatre), leaving the fate of that poor squirrel family in the soffit unresolved. Andrew is still fretting about their wellbeing today.


Squirrel Videos

3 Responses to “Review – Love the Sinner, National Theatre”

  1. Mark Shenton Says:

    Never mind the first time soffit being mentioned in a play — this is the first time I’ve seen the word heteroclite mentioned in a review! I had to rush to to find out what it meant…. For a dreadful moment, I feared it meant that in the last month you’ve been going sraight, perish the thought….

  2. A Clown Says:

    Really? Really Old Like 45 was the worst thing ever and this gets 3 glasses? I’m quite surprised as I was sure you would hate this. Whilst I enjoyed the arguments raised, and in a balanced manner too I agree, by the time we were starting to get anywhere with them, the scene finished and we moved swiftly onto the next major topic. None of them were dealt with in any depth and as a result, one leaves not knowing what it all about, or indeed what the playwright was trying to say about any of the myriad issues.

    Still, at least you didn’t talk about it putting the “jizz in Jesus…”

  3. Jez Field Says:

    Little more than affirmative action for right-wing playwrights. The main characterisation seems to have been distilled from a recent John Malkovich vehicle, ‘Disgrace’. The mood was tense and argumentative throughout, no changes in pacing or comedic relief. The squirrels, by the way, are a metaphor for the play’s central theme. I’d concede marks for the acting, plot, dialogue and set design, but… To spot same in future watch out for plaudits from the Mail & Express.

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