THERE is a speech at the end of David Hare’s Racing Demon, the opening play of Jonathan Church’s first summer season at Bath’s Theatre Royal, that talks about the eradication of certainties.
It was relevant when the play opened in London in 1990, but goodness it is even more relevant now!
Racing Demon – named for the annual “running of the bishops” photographs rather than the card game – is the first of Hare’s plays to concentrate on the Establishment, and was followed by Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. Times have moved on a bit in nearly 30 years, but his exploration of the Church in crisis, facing questions of dwindling attendances, Evangelical young priests, female clergy and homosexual scandals, still resonates loudly.
Jonathan Church’s production encompasses with equal power the grandeur of the episcopal palace and the faded penury of the inner city parish where the “team” works. Team leader Lionel Espy (David Haig) longs for the God of old, to give him some sign that he’s doing the right thing as he gently encourages his parishioners and despairs of their plight.
The Rev Harry hides a secret for which he feels no guilt, but lives with the fear that its exposure would be his finish. The Rev Streaky loves everything about his calling, and finds the shallow challenges he encounters embarrassingly simple.
But then there is the young Rev Tony Ferris, a man who wants to force God and the Holy Trinity down the throats of his flock, to bring them into church by any means possible. His own self-aggrandising selfishness makes him an unbearable person and a duplicitous team member.
Racing Demon is a powerful, thought-provoking play about the role of the church in the 21st century, ministering to a congregation whose ageing (middle class) regulars want a worship they can recognise from childhood. Ecumenicism is seen as the answer and at the same time the increasingly “business orientated” hierarchy tries to survive in uncertain political, social and economic times.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect Espy than David Haig, whose innate kindness shines through his ineffectuality. Paapa Essiedu is a shiny Ferris, set on his own path to worldly as well as heavenly glory.
Anthony Calf musters up furious power from the apparently jovial and food obsessed Bishop, with Amanda Root as the downtrodden and self effacing Mrs Espy, leading a perfectly balanced cast.
Racing Demon continues to 8th July, when the second play of the season, Edward Fox’s solo tribute to John Betjeman, Sand in the Sandwiches, plays for a week.