Love The Sinner @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Scott Handy, Sam Graham, Fraser James, Robert Gwilym, Paul Bentall, Richard Rees, Nancy Crane, Ian Redford, Louis Mahoney, Jonathan Cullen, Fiston Barek, Charlotte Randle

directed by
Matthew Dunster
Drew Pautzs new play explores the dilemmas facing the church today on issues such as homosexuality, by focusing on one man, his wife and an African boy.

Theres nothing new in theatre using a few key relationships to explore far wider issues, and the device often works by bringing everything down to a human level.

But the combination of institutional and personal crises presented in Love the Sinner creates a rather strange mix, and some of the plays scenes are far stronger than others.
The play opens strongly with a meeting of various church leaders in Africa, planning to determine the churchs stance on homosexuality and same sex blessings. Hannah, a progressive, feels that the church needs to move with the times, whilst Paul argues that it should remain as a constant. However the world changes, he says, people need to know that the church stands as a beacon of light to which they can always head. Whilst the English diocesan bishop, Stephen, is keen to gain a consensus on the subject, the episode feels like a battle for supremacy between two factions, and there is petty bickering over such important issues as whether coffee breaks really clear the mind or simply stall discussions.

The second scene also fares well by virtue of its sheer potency. In it we see Michael, a layman at the conference, in his hotel bedroom, having just slept with the young African boy, Joseph (Fiston Barek). In their intensely powerful exchange, Joseph begs Michael (Jonathan Cullen) to take him back to England, but Michael refuses.

After such an emotionally charged scene, however, the drama takes something of a nosedive. Back in England, Michaels insecurity over his homosexuality manifests itself through his uncomfortable relationship with his wife, Shelly (Charlotte Randle), and sees him becoming a religious fanatic. The scenes, however, become long and unmoving, and a dialogue concerning squirrels feels irrelevant and irritating. Although religious fanaticism can manifest itself differently in different people, Michaels own brand remains unconvincing, amounting to hanging out with Christians on weekdays and reading the Bible (is that really fanaticism?), and behaving oddly, though hardly realistically, at work.

Nevertheless, there are some strong performances. Ian Redfords portrayal of Stephen helps us to see how a bishop who is compassionate, kind-hearted and progressive by nature, is forced into adopting conservative stances by his position and church politics. Fiston Barek is also effective as Joseph, a free spirit who has not cracked under poverty, but who is full of anger when he feels used and abused. Anna Fleischles sets are also intelligent using wooden panelling to capture the sterile interior of an African Crown Plaza Hotel in one scene, and the atmosphere of a modern English church basement in another.

Things pick up towards the end as Joseph appears in England, having been whipped by his boss, and exposes the difficulty of the churchs position. Stephens heart tells him he should take the bull by the horns in helping Joseph, but he cannot speak out immediately on abuse, asylum and homosexuality without creating disunity and inviting press criticism. In this way, the play presents some interesting thoughts concerning institutional behaviour, but it could lose a little in length, and a lot of the dross.

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