The Last Confession @ Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

cast list
David Suchet
Michael Jayston
Richard O’Callaghan
Roger May
Bernard Lloyd
Stuart Milligan
Clifford Rose
Charles Kay
John Franklyn-Robbins
John Cormack
Michael Cronin
Joseph Mydell
Joseph Long
Paul Foster
Maroussia Frank
Christopher Mellows

directed by
David Jones
A hit at Chichester Festival Theatre earlier in the year, Roger Crane’s new play now in the West End deals with a fascinating episode of recent history. It’s one that has been rather unexplored in this country, which is surprising considering that a fall-out of the story was an Italian banker found swinging under Blackfriars Bridge with bricks in his pockets.

Pope Paul VI died in 1978 after a 15 year reign during which he achieved not a lot (he was known as the “Hamlet Pope” because of his vacillating nature). He was succeeded by John Paul I, who died after just 33 days and, at the time, there were suspicions of foul play, although nothing conclusive has ever come to light about the affair.

Roger Crane is a 61 year old New York lawyer and this first play of his, while having well-written dialogue, has something of a chaotic dramatic structure. It has a multitude of themes and the focus races all over the place. There’s the moral confusion of Cardinal Benelli (David Suchet), who burns with ambition to be Secretary of State and even Pope but whose pride prevents him from taking the not given.

Then there’s the character of John Paul I (maybe the most interesting strand and worthy of a complete play in itself), a reluctant Pontiff whose gentle and dithering manner belies a steely inner strength he may find it difficult to return his revolting coffee to the kitchen but is much more assertive when it comes to challenging rebellious cardinals and sending them into distant exile.

The second act veers in the direction of an Agatha Christie thriller, familiar territory for both star and writer, as Benelli investigates JP’s sudden death in a rigorous cross-examination of witnesses. There’s a rather clunky device of a confessor monk (Michael Jayston) to whom Benelli tells his story in the well-worn convention of flashbacks. The play lurches down a completely new path towards the end when the relationship of these two men evolves.

What must have thrilled the Sussex audiences were the performances of an extraordinarily experienced cast of male actors. Suchet is a master of his art and is always a pleasure to watch at work. He brings tremendous authority to the ambiguous role of Cardinal Benelli. It’s good to see him teamed up again with David Jones, a director who has been away from our shores for far too many years, and with whom Suchet had a formidable relationship at the RSC in the seventies.

Richard O’Callaghan is excellent as Luciani, the meek cardinal who becomes John Paul I. There is also strong work from the likes of Charles Kay, Bernard Lloyd and John Franklin-Robbins, although there’s also a tendency towards histrionics from these veterans at times.

William Dudley provides an excellent set, which evokes the atmosphere of the Vatican through simple means and Dominic Muldowney’s moody score supports the action effectively.

Crane obviously speculates a good deal about what might have gone on within the hallowed walls of the Papal City and he doesn’t avoid a good helping of clich. The paradox of power and spirituality within institutional religion, for instance, seems over familiar.

Unless you are fairly conversant with the history, you are strongly advised to buy a programme and read the notes in order to keep up with the chronology of events and personalities. Mention is made in passing to people like Sindona and Roberto Calvi (the unfortunate man who got to see the Thames from an unenviable angle) and it helps to know some of the background.

If The Last Confession is far from perfect, it does have flair and is intelligent, a major strength in a West End play. It’s likely to stimulate your interest and make you leave wanting to find out more about the events it was based upon.

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