By Mike Savill
How much information does one need to judge someone else?
This question lies at the heart of John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Doubt: a Parable’ with its central plot premise revolving around a Catholic nun and school principal who believes, but has no proof, that a priest is sexually abusing one of her students. That the student in question is black in the pressure cooker sensitivity of America in 1964 only adds the first of many strands which unravel throughout the course of a thought-provoking evening of theatre.
A Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play and a none-too shabby film starring Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, ‘Doubt’ has a pedigree signifying any performance will be no small undertaking. That Mike Darbon’s bar production nails it so effectively is testament to the talents of all involved and made for an compelling and engaging production firmly concluding a year where the bar shows have truly come into their own. And let me say straight away, this was a show that benefitted immensely from the location. I know that in terms of direction, Mike was confronted with the conundrum of turning this small space into three distinct locations but the elegantly abstract solution of lighting, sound effects and subtle set design made for easy and fluid interpretation that set clutter would only have confused. The intimacy created served to ramp up the tensions of the play, leaving nowhere for character or actor to hide. And it was presented by a cast that knew how to work it masterfully.
At the heart of the play are Father Flynn and his binary opposite, Sister Aloysius, the principal whose doubts about her counterpart propels the play forwards. Add to this Sister James – youthful, slightly naïve, creative and emotional, the very counterpoint of Aloysius – and one has a powerful triptych around which the action bubbles.
As Aloysius Julie Binysh is at her best. Here is a role which could very easy descend into the territory of sneering panto villainess: subtly written, it takes astute direction and a skilled performer to bring out the nuances of Shanley’s dialogue and humanise her. Julie’s deftness of approach ensured that here was a character whose doubts and vulnerability were masterfully channelled. With well-practiced accent, controlled physicality and concentrated approach, she commanded attention throughout.
Unquestionably any actor destined to confront her would require considerable presence, conviction and aptitude. Matthew Platt has these in bucketloads.
No stranger to playing clergymen, I would say this was the crowning glory of his ecclesiastic career. Assured and engaging, his charismatic performance won the audience with a marvellously delivered series of sermons and speeches and some sparkling tension in the climactic scene between himself and Binysh, but never strayed into total whiter than white goodness, here was also room for doubt.
Megan McGery’s Sister James was no less believable and engaging. A voice of liberal enlightenment in the strictures of Catholic education of the 60s, hers is not very loud when placed against the formidable and indomitable force of Aloysius, and James’s fragility was beautifully conveyed in another performance that convinced throughout. Whether in tears or wonderful moments of humour – in particular, one stand-out scene exploring the merits of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ – Megan’s was another performance that was totally absorbing. It is, perhaps, worth adding, despite its serious subject matter, there are many moments of comedy within the play and she was instrumental in eliciting much of it.
Into this clerical melting pot then comes the final member of the cast, Mrs Muller, the mother of the boy at the heart of looming scandal. Maxine Edwards makes a welcome return to BLT with as assured and engaging a performance as she offered in, ‘Clybourne Park’. Muller is a woman who is well aware of the imperfectness of situation but, in a very imperfect time, is compelled to take a realistic and pragmatic approach to things and this delicate engagement with the grey areas of life was delivered with engaging conviction and, as matters became heated, more than appropriate spirit and passion.
That said, it did feel that occasionally those more incendiary moments of the drama were a tad restrained. Maybe this was down to the space or the subject matter, this is after all not a play about Brian Blessed style explosions but about the deep bruising of the soul and…well…doubt. And, as such, it is a well-reasoned, logical take, but for me it very occasionally diverted the steady emotional rhythm of the piece. But this is micro-critique and with scenes constructed and delivered with conviction and an eye for the meanings at their heart, undoubtedly it left the audience talking; about its themes, its ambiguous ending and its excellent execution. And of that there is no doubt.