"Dignified, authoritative theatre of argument"
by Rachel Knightley for remotegoat on 24/05/16

Set in Cheltenham, 1842, the ‘Subject’ in question is George Holyoake, a poor teacher and the last British subject to be tried for Blasphemy. It is narrated by ‘a lawyer’ (charmingly ambivalent Doron Davidson), whose voiceover bridges elegant scene-changes in which six crates allow Holyoake to walk over hills, from home to lecture hall and lecture hall to prison. The sense of place and travel is strong in the early scenes, a credit to Philip Lindley’s design and Ste Clough’s choreography. Frustratingly, this falls away and leaves a sense of the production giving up under the flood of text in the lawyer’s report.

There is a compelling gentleness to Holyoake (Jamie Muscato), a sensitive and informed portrayal of his stutter and his danger coming from an essential wish to be truthful. His manner and choices make him appropriately sympathetic and infuriating but there is not quite the depth of feeling between man and wife (lovingly downtrodden Caroline Moroney) to draw us in on a personal level. A lack of depth to the relationships in comparison with the volume of text compounds the sense that what we are watching is a document rather than a play.

The strengths and challenges of this piece are great: Osborne’s exquisite anger, contained and otherwise, is all there, as is the intelligence and sense of impotence. But not much space is left in the script for ‘showing’. This is a strong cast who find delightful characters and power struggles (a particular treat is Edmund Digby-Jones’s clerk of the court which captures in subtext all the received opinions and snobberies of the culture) but the balance of analysis and action is still at times perilously close to a radio play with illustrations. Like the space of the Finborough itself, the personality of the piece needs to be embraced as a strength rather than worn as straightjacket if it is to succeed rather than draw attention to how cramped it can be.

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