"Cult-comedy more enthusiasm than enlightenment"
by Rachel Knightley for remotegoat on 25/06/16

In its strongest moments, there is an intriguing mix of Martin McDonagh and Father Ted in Anne Bartram’s That Catholic Thing. We meet the intensely religious, well-meaning, gloriously irony-free Louise (Louise Lee), meticulously arranging tiny cakes and biscuits on large plates in anticipation of tea with the priest. Her brother Maurice (Gaz Radcliffe) goes from mocking her faith to experiencing a “vision” that turns him from non-believer to self-styled messiah.

Anne Bartram “wanted to write a play that exposed the ridiculous rites associated not only with catholicism but so many other religions too” and to draw on personal experience of a sister “who suffers with severe mental health issues and… how she has been taken advantage of by ‘her church’”. Had the enjoyable humour, subtlety and psychological and narrative coherence of the first scene been maintained, the play might better explore the issues it claims. Instead, it slides from dark satire to loose farce, sacrificing clarity and sympathy. The stylization of Maurice’s “vision” – three deliberately awkward angels dancing and gurning – is closer to Radcliffe’s own heightened performance style than to the truthful humour and graceful naturalism of Lee’s performance, making the world of the play unstable and jarring. Costume and image are borrowed from other religions without a clear or significant point being made to necessitate the use. The result is that, deliberately or not, ridicule seems to be method and message here.

The central conflict between faith, carnal and familial love with personal morality is a potentially fascinating one. Louise’s received understanding of God and her place within the world, her incestuous love and loyalty to her brother, childhood trauma and suggested part in matricide underpin how torn she is between love of God, love of man and her own sense right and wrong. While mental health issues do appear in Louise’s treatment by those closest to her, and in the treatment of their autistic neighbour (an admirably consistent and focused performance by Kane Surry), these are displayed rather than explored. Without sufficient clarity of message, there is no justification, so images come across as gratuitous.

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