GOD ONLY KNOWS
Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2
Opened 20 March, 2001

Did someone declare it Theological Debate Month in British theatre and forget to tell me? It has taken me over a week to recover fully from what is surely the most hideously abstruse offering currently on the London fringe the atrocious ecstasy + GRACE [sic], which dresses up its sanctimonious moralising in bogus robes of sensationalism when along comes Hugh Whitemore's new play God Only Knows, covering similar territory albeit rather more honestly. But honesty and recondite religious arguments are not enough to make a decent play. A decent novel and TV mini-series, perhaps, as Irving Wallace showed in the 1970s with The Word; a decent conspiracy theory witness The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail and numerous other such screeds; even a decent edition of one of those late-night discussion programmes in the early days of Channel Four, which nobody watched. But a play? Sorry, but no.

When Derek Jacobi, clad in pyjamas and Rolling Stones tour jacket, staggers from a car crash on to the terrace of a Tuscan villa where two middle-aged holidaying British couples have been playing Monopoly, they are unsure what to make of him. When he tells a story of having, during his work in the Vatican archives, encountered a document which leads the Church to imprison him in a clinic from which he escaped, he seems more and more unhinged. When he reveals that his discovery is an ancient letter which threatens to destabilise Christianity itself, the other four seem to run out of incredulity and settle down instead to debating with him the nature of religion, heresy, faith and the like... not to mention Mithraism, Roberto Calvi, near-death experiences and, thankfully in passing, Baron Corvo. Whitemore has done a lot of reading, and he puts it unadulterated into the mouth of Jacobi's character as the others either prompt him with convenient questions or set up straw-man counter-arguments which he effortlessly slaps aside. Motifs such as people's desire to believe in the impossible are blatantly telegraphed in the opening scene for Jacobi to reprise on his arrival.

Anthony Page's direction is powerless in the face of the serene untheatricality of the piece. If the names of Whitemore and his frequent associate Jacobi had not been attached, I cannot imagine that producer Duncan Weldon would have given it a second glance. When one character protests, in the face of all the evidence, "This is not a theological debate!", one's impulse is to stand up in the stalls and shout, "And I am Mother Teresa of Calcutta!" Numerous historical and cosmic complexities are skated over in the course of two hours or so; glib though their treatment may be, however, any one of them is more fully answered than the question of what in heaven's name possessed Whitemore to try and shoehorn all these arcana into a stage play, which simply bursts at the seams under the pressure of its contents.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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