14 December 2022
HOLY SH*T (Riverside Studios) Review
This show wasn’t on my radar until a friend said he wanted to see something fun and quirky before heading off on holiday. Having had a look at what’s playing that neither of us have seen, this seemed like a no-brainer: two priests dig up their graveyard and sell the bodies to a medical school in order to fund the roof repair of their impoverished church. Don’t worry, I haven’t just given away any surprises; this is pretty much in all online descriptions of the play, and you get told in the first few minutes of the show that this is what the story is going to be about.
The idea was really clever (I thought), and it could’ve been so much fun, but the writing and, most importantly, execution felt very disappointing.
Firstly, the writing. It tries so hard to get laughs, it’s excruciating. For example, there is a line about how ironic it is for this old woman to have lived through the isolation and hand-washing of Covid only to die from choking. The line was followed by a pause, presumably for laughs, but no one laughed. There is also a bishop named Victor Wicktor, but no one laughed at that either. It’s not a subtle piece of writing where you chuckle from sheer enjoyment, but a heavy-handed text that chews everything up and feeds it to you, having lost all of its excitement in the process. There is even a steeple whose value is spelled out so obviously, it becomes a Chekhov steeple… There is a “secret handshake” that is actually very funny… for the first 15 seconds. I was laughing, the rest of the audience was laughing… By the time it passed 30 seconds, no one was. There is a whole tangent about whether the gangster in the cemetery is the biggest or second biggest in London, but all jokes there land flat because the whole segment is unnecessary. The only genuinely funny line (SPOILER ALERT!) in the whole play is about a typo on the church sign that requested that parishioners “satanise their hands”. It felt like Jack Fairhurst hit comedy gold with this idea, but then wrote all the funny out of it… But then, of course, everyone has a different threshold for comedy: off the back of overhearing conversations at the end of the show, people next to me thought the play was really funny, whereas people in front of me didn’t think it was funny at all.
Secondly, the actors. Not the acting, the actors. This is meant to be a professional production. Come on, it’s a month-long run at Riverside Studios, not 3 performances at a 20-seater above a pub. One of priests has long fingernails painted black, and one of the old women in the congregation has a nose ring. Seriously??? I fail to understand Rosa Higgs’ direction here. It is incredibly distracting, and, based on my understanding of the industry, it’s not at all uncommon to request that actors remove piercings or not paint their nails or cover up their tattoos etc. in order to fit the part they are playing. All this “actors looking as they do in life” approach achieves is giving the production an AmDram feel, like this production is something the actors are doing as a one-off show at the end of a theatre course.
Thirdly, the acting. Rafael Aptroot (Father George, the pre-existing priest at a crumbling church) was the highlight of the show for me. He was the only one, for me anyway, whose performance felt like he was actually trying to deliver something to the audience rather than just go out and have fun with it. The fumbling bumbling beaten-down picture of a priest he paints feels really authentic. When he spills a can of lager on himself (as intended, not an accident), you totally get how it’s just another tiny disappointment atop of a million disappointments already weighing him down. Jack Dillon (Father Charlie, the newly-minted priest sent by the church to co-priest because there are now more priests than parishes apparently), on the other hand, didn’t do it for me. Some of it was down to his hipster look (long hair, beard, painted nails), but a lot of it was down to him having too much fun with the role: it was as if every line said was said sarcastically or tongue-in-cheek. Granted, Charlie does say later in the play that being a priest is just a temporary job to him en route to something different in a few years, but nothing in the text suggests that he isn’t taking it seriously whilst he’s at it. Sure, he curses and thinks his boss in sky is nicer than George’s, but Dillon makes his character come across like he’s in it just for a laugh, and that didn’t jive with the rest of the play for me.
As for the rest of the cast… Flora Douglas plays multiple roles and is overused. She is the policeman, an elderly paritioner, and a local gangster. She is charming and chucklesome as a young nervous police person, but her accent, tone, and mannerisms are the same for the other two roles, and that didn’t work for me. I also think that the gangster role should’ve gone to the woman who played Mary (the other elderly parishioner, later dead from the aforementioned choking). I don’t know her name, as she’s uncredited on production’s web site, but I definitely think Higgs should’ve given the gangster role to her instead of overloading Douglas. Two characters played the same way is not great, but three made it look like Douglas has a limited range, which I assume wasn’t the intention. Kieran Taylor-Ford also plays multiple roles (the bishop, the professor buying the bodies, and Charlie’s mate brokering the arrangement). Again, the costumes are different, but the accent and mannerisms are the same in all 3 characters, which too contributes to the AmDram feel. There is clearly not enough time switching from Charlie’s mate to the professor because we can see the whole of the former’s costume under the lab coat of the latter on account of being undone in the back. I wanted to spend the entire production laughing, but ended up mostly rolling my eyes.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£2.