Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 26 November, 2007

John Patrick Shanley's four-handed play, which premiered off-Broadway in 2004, fully merits its subtitle. Not only do we hear a couple of homiletic tales from young, charismatic Brooklyn-Irish priest Father Flynn, but the entire 80-minute piece is, not finger-waggingly didactic but rather a deliberately instructive illustration of that state in which, as Shanley puts it, "the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered".

But for authorial skill in creating a succession of such states, this would be a rather thin tale of "did he or didn't he interfere with one of the altar boys?" The boy's teacher, Sister James, refuses to believe it; the convent school principal, Sister Aloysius, is unshakable in her pursuit of Fr Flynn as a wrong 'un. For much of its first phase it seems to be Catholic-oppression-by-numbers, with Dearbhla Molloy's Sr Aloysius scowling beneath her wimple and offering lapidary pronouncements such as "Satisfaction is a vice" and even "'Frosty The Snowman' espouses a pagan belief in magic". Meanwhile, Sr James (Marcella Plunkett) and Fr Flynn (Pádraic Delaney – note the Irishness of the cast) embody the spirit of Vatican II (the play is set in 1964) by caring about their charges as human beings.

However, when Sr Aloysius enjoins the younger nun to be more observant and less charitable, we see the first doubt enter. Sr James will always maintain her trust in Fr Flynn, but this comes to be more a matter of faith and will than reasoned conviction. From her, the doubt enters us, the audience, even as we recognise how Sr Aloysius's very words are changing the territory much as Iago's do in his central exchange with Othello. Next, although the chain of ecclesiastical command leaves all the cards in male hands, Fr Flynn begins to doubt the security of his position against this campaign. (After all this, the final couple of revelations are both unsurprising and glib.) The only person who is not shaken is the boy's mother, who in Nikki Amuka-Bird's excellent performance is demure yet unafraid of Sr Aloysius and unswerving in her love for her boy regardless. Nicolas Kent's production is smooth and unfussy, and rightly allows us the space to watch ourselves as well as the folk onstage.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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