I think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.
The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.
So we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.
It’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.
It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.
The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. More excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” With that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.
This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.