"The Vicar of Peckham Rye"
by Roger Mortimer-Smith for remotegoat on 15/06/13

At this rate the Peckham spring may turn out not to be a mythical source of water, but a genuine flowering of artistic creativity – lately every theatre piece I’ve been to in the area has been first rate. Nicola Baldwin’s All Saints also has the distinction of being set in Peckham, as naive young vicar Stella is transplanted from a sleepy country parish, perhaps not entirely unlike Dibley, to the rough and tumble (or should that be multicultural vibrancy?) of south London.

She soon discovers that existing church volunteers Trissia, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, and Marty, whose family have no doubt been sarf Londoners since the days of Boudicca, don’t get on all that well. Add to that a couple of eastern Europeans looking for cash-in-hand work (well, the Inland Revenue are so busy, it seems a shame to add to their workload...) and a taciturn teenage hoodie who hangs around the churchyard for want of anywhere else to go, and you have the assembled company – except that the hoodie and one of the eastern Europeans also appear in another guise, an angel and the devil competing for the soul of the parish (Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour...)

Everything rubs along nicely until the Home Office sticks its oar in – Trissia, although she’s been in the country for 20 years and runs three businesses, learns that she might be sent “home” at any moment. Of course, her problem would be solved if she married either a Brit or someone from an EU country, and as it happens Casimir is in need of some money to start his own business. But how can Stella square officiating at a sham marriage with her conscience? Is it enough to say she’s acting for the greater good? And how can Marty resist taking this opportunity to dispose of the rival she insists on calling “Trisha”?

This is an extremely funny piece which, in the second half, also achieves unexpected emotional depth. It’s helped by a whole ensemble of stellar performances without a weak link among them. The naive young vicar out of his/her depth could easily be a bit of a stock character, and it’s a tribute to Baldwin’s writing and Grace Edwards’ performance that it never seems so here. Nicola Sanderson is hilarious as Marty, somewhere between Pat Butcher and the warder from Prisoner Cell Block H, with the vocal skill to make a bus timetable hilarious. Michelle Greenidge matches her ever step of the way as Trissia, trying to liven up the most sedate Church of England hymns with gospel stylings. Peter Clements is excellent as Bucholz, the (possibly) Russian whose improving English is marked by the new snatches of poetry he can recite, and Christopher Lane very funny as Casimir, certain that his growing fondness for the boy is due to their having “not being gay” in common.

But if there is a stand-out performance, it has to be Jessica Kennedy as the boy and angel. She has Daniel Day-Lewis’s gift of being able to tell you more about her character from the way she stands than most actors could with a long speech, and manages to keep the reunion scene towards the end genuinely moving rather than mawkish (credit also to Baldwin and director Helen Sheals for that).

It’s not a perfect show. For a happy ending to consist of everyone pairing off seems a little old fashioned, and it’s shame that Casimir’s concerns about his sexuality have to be resolved by him realising “Phew, I’m not gay after all” – again, shades of a 70s sitcom. (On which subject, surely a way could be found to represent the devil that doesn’t look so much like Herr Flick of the Gestapo from ‘Allo ‘Allo?) But these are minor quibbles in what was a superbly entertaining evening – even the cast seemed surprised by how many times they were called back by applause that refused to die down. Highly recommended.

Event venues and times
finished The Last Refuge | 133 Rye Lane, London, SE15 4ST

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