ecstasy + GRACE [sic] is the first play I have seen in ages in which every single actor (in a cast of six) has a CV which includes The Bill, even the thirteen-year-old boy. But that is its biggest achievement. James Martin Charlton's play is being sold as sensational, as controversial, as about – horrors! – paedophilia and child pornography. This is so far from the truth as to be almost fraudulent. It is not an outright lie, since protagonist Davy (Tom Hayes) does indeed run a gay porn shop in Amsterdam with his German skinhead lover (Michael Sachs), and also pimps a thirteen-year-old boy; but Charlton's play is no more about this milieu than Krapp's Last Tape is about the technology of audio recording, or than The Tempest is about meteorology.
No, Charlton has bigger fish to fry. He's concerned with theological redemption. The seamy side of the 'Dam just provides a pretext for Davy to debate, at great and implausibly articulate length, with an old Salvation Army comrade from his former life in London (Rachel Smith) as she tries to bring him back into the fold, and for the German and a couple of Brit paedos to discourse at length on the ways in which they – and, by association, Davy – are damned. Charlton either knows nothing about the events and phenomena he includes – he confuses paedophilia as a sexual orientation with the eroticisation of power in child sexual abuse; he blithely peddles the myth of the snuff movie (in fact, not a single one has ever been shown to exist, anywhere, ever); he severely exaggerates the damage caused by a bullet in the kneecap – or he simply does not care how he remakes the reality he is supposedly writing about, as long as it lets him get to his real themes. He ditches Kai the German's earlier Holocaust denial without a second thought, simply for the sake of an easy one-liner; in contrast, when Davy and Rae are arguing, these two supposedly fairly ordinary people casually swap arcane details of the poet Rimbaud's Abyssinian years! In the final exchange, Rae embarks upon a lengthy, dense metaphor about her "children", Faith and Courage, which one fears has got mixed up in this play from Charlton's other current project, a stage adaptation of The Pilgrim's Progress.
In its way, this play is more judgemental even than the Paulsgrove estate pogroms. At least those idiotic vigilantes believed they were engaging with actual people and an actual society. For all the earnest sentiments of his programme notes, Charlton's interest transparently begins and ends with our immortal souls. The debate about paedophilia and child sexual abuse could do with powerful dramatic articulation, but such sub-sub-sub-Graham Greene sermonising helps no-one and nothing... except the bank balance of the Theatre 28 company, who sadly choose to follow up their solid work on Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and Love! Valour! Compassion! with a slab of earnest, bogus tripe like this which is selling out because of superficial, dishonest marketing. It's using the Devil as a poster-boy to sell God, and doing both cack-handedly.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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