Jocelyn Cox reviews Faith Machine by Alexi Kaye Campbell, playing at London’s Royal Court and directed by Jamie Lloyd
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s debut, The Pride, won an Olivier Award, the John Whiting Award for Best Play, and a Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. It was a sensation at the Royal Court, and gained a successful New York transfer. His next play, Apologia was also nominated for significant awards. Consequently, there is significant pressure to maintain his own exceptional standard with his latest offering. Thankfully, he does not disappoint.
The writing is gripping; it challenges the audience to consider not only organised religion, but also human relationships. The opening scene is particularly powerful and exceptionally well written. The play opens on September 11th 2001. It’s about a world struggling to remain, two ideologies fighting for triumph. But it is not about the twin towers, not about the terrorist attacks. Instead, we see two lovers failing to reconcile their views of the future, their moral judgements of actions and employments, and as they row, New York tumbles down around them. The play jumps between settings and times in the relationship of Sophie and Tom, and those who are brought in as replacements on both sides when their love falls apart. Campbell explores the intimate significance we attach to calendar dates due to past experience. It is an interesting concept, and a brave choice to involve such an historic date.
Act Two opens in an ante-chamber to the reception of a civil union. A flamboyant, but not caricatured, friend of Sophie and Tom’s panics about a lost speech as Sophie and Tom meet after some years, with new partners. The writing is witty and the interactions beautifully well-drawn. Both Kyle Soller (Tom) and Hayley Atwell (Sophie) play the awkward tensions wonderfully, much to the amusement of the audience.
Ian McDiarmid commanded the necessary respect as Edward, Sophie’s father, and his interaction with Atwell in a later scene showing him incontinent and confused after a series of strokes was poignant. Although the comic strains are presented, the audience is reminded that the humour of these situations comes from the tragedy, and this is in no way undermined. It is rather a truthful articulation of the human impulse to laugh at an awful situation as a defence. The inclusion of bolshy Ukrainian housekeeper Tatyana is reminiscent of a Shakespearean Fool, and works well in this production, although it is unclear how much the success of this role is due to the strong performance of Bronagh Gallagher.
The production is pacey, thought-provoking and captivatingly written. More could perhaps have been made of the death in the final scene, but the play did not suffer for the scarcity of details there. It could have been interesting to have a projection of the date of each scene visible, as this information, in the script, adds to the arc of the relationship. The rebuff of an opposed bishop’s argument against homosexuality by Edward using the biblical attitude to shellfish was the only point at which the writing felt forced. As an eminent bishop, it felt like Edward could have used a less dinner-table example, and certainly a more pointed one. However, this play remains an example of a talented playwright proving that he has the talent to remain on our stages for years to come.
Image credit – Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of Royal Court