‘Dark, sharp new comedy’: HOLY SH!T – Kiln Theatre ★★★★★

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Kiln Theatre, London – until 6 October 2018

The renamed Tricycle (no, I am not taking sides) is open: its leader Indhu Rubasingham launches her sprauncy new theatre with Alexis Zegerman’s dark, sharp new comedy about one of the great corruptions of British society: the battle of ambitious, anxious but atheist parents to get their children places at “faith” schools.

It’s a scam. Churches are shamefully complicit, taking a register of attendance knowing quite well that some people will spend a year of Sundays pretending to worship rather than risk a scruffier school or pay privately. “On your knees to save the fees” is common enough to deserve all it gets from satirists. But also, as here, it deserves a thoughtful as well as comic treatment of its psychological risks. Might it sow real spirituality? Or kill it off? Frankly, how safe is it to intrude uncomfortable dimensions of eternity and ultimate morality into the brittle self-satisfactions of middle class life?  Is prayer and prosecco too volatile a mix?

Zegerman shows courage in weaving together many strands of resentment, hidden unease and “othering” – not only about religion and education but race, antisemitism, class, money, and, divergent styles of marriage and motherhood. Two couples are rapidly and neatly drawn, but then deepen.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett is Simone: noisy, cynically gung-ho and Jewish (“its a race not a religion”). She is married to the fairly prosperous web designer man Sam, a heavy pot-smoker and loose-ish cannon who as the year goes on hates the hypocrisies which Simone is distinctly enjoying: her very loud and high entr’acte hymns are a treat, especially in contrast to her friend Juliet (Claire Goose) who is more heartfelt about religion.

She is married to Nick, a black teacher (a really excellent rending by Daon Broni) who is the most appealing of the four. But it isn’t long before the irritation of Simone’s gung-ho assault on choir, congregational socialising and even Confirmation gets Juliet down.

In a wonderful downstage moment both are singing a hymn and Juliet, the quieter voice, gives up in disgust.   We never see the priest or the bells-and-smells HIgh Anglican church, but it comes alive all right.   A telling scene of a Jewish shiva raises something unexpected in the scornful Sam, and echoes of Ibo heritage and beliefs in Nick:  that sense of spiritual priorities edging in on them all is oddly powerful.   And then of course, both parents learn which four-year-old won the place at St Mary’s, and hell breaks out.

There are echoes of the inter-parent rows in Yasmina Reza’s classic God of Carnage, and In a well-syncopated sequence of symmetrical offence there are parallels with Clybourne Park:  both are damn  good company to be in.  But there is real pain:   Juliet expressing, to her husband’s dismay, the agonised worry of a white mother of a brown child, fearing for the future and humiliated that with her French-braid blondeness she can’t manage a little girl’s hair as well as Nick – who used to do his sister’s .    Pain too in Simone’s bereaved loneliness for her parents, and in a sense for her whole heritage, and in the way Sam’s confused, guilty, self-indulsgent pothead paranoia latches  onto his Jewishness and working class pride, whichever is the handies,   In final moments Nick has a weary, desperate statement of the self-evident but often invisible truth about parenthood.   It’s a fine play, and should have sold out and hasn’t yet, so go..

Oh, and the new theatre renovations? Very comfy, and seemingly good for designers too, lots of height and room for classy, understated  sliding scenesets.   I was sentimentally fond of the old Meccano galleries and comradely tip-up  seats, but time moves on.

Box office 0207328 1000.  kilntheatre.com

To 6 Oct

rating  five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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