“A series of crude, clownish retellings of different tales from scripture.” The Gospels, satirised in sketch comedy. As superb as Life of Brian definitely is, I will admit that (as a theology student who takes her subject far too seriously) my hopes for this production were not high. But, just thirty minutes and two scenes later, their resurrection was complete.
The first sketch depicts the Slaughter of the Innocents – Herod’s massacre of male children at the time of Christ’s birth. Comedy – really? Is this not veering towards the ‘awkwardly crass’ side of comic theatre? Well, actually, not at all. The piece manages to be both very moving and very funny: the script is clever, but as usual it is the actors who bring it alive.
Laura Whitehouse acts as a mother whose child was taken and, driven delirious with grief, she finds a lamb and believes it to be her son. Whitehouse is tense and anxious enough for us to have no problem believing that she’s on the brink of hysteria, but there’s a blackly comic undertone to her protests. She will certainly be one to watch.
The same dark humour surfaces with a story of two Roman soldiers at the start; those behind the slaughter. Harry Lee gives an emotive performance as the fearful, rather too moral young centurion whose reluctance to slaughter any more innocents gets him – entertainingly – killed.
You are probably getting that this is all rather a peculiar experience. That observation is only solidified by the fact that the audience is, quite literally, immersed in the play: they stand in the middle, and the scenes play out around them. Characters are some feet away (sometimes less), so the fourth wall is not quite broken, but certainly given a firm shove. There is eye contact, but it does not reconnect you with the actors-qua-actors: quite the reverse. They become their characters so entirely that the proximity is very much to the Roman soldier, to the Jewish mother and never to the undergrad students who decided it would be fun to act in Trinity.
Sami Ibrahim’s directing is fluid, meticulous. He tells me that, unusually for the Burton Taylor, there’s going to be some “quite ramshackle” live music, and my interest is further piqued. Not Jesus Christ Superstar, but not bad.
By all accounts, the rehearsal schedule has been intense, and that shows, but the team have another couple of weeks until the 4th-week performance. Whether you are familiar with the intricacies of the canonical gospels or not, whether you’re into edgy experimental theatre or not, Comic Mysteries looks set to be divine.
Comic Mysteries will run from 14th-18th May (Tuesday-Saturday of 4th Week) at the Burton Taylor Studio, starting at 9:30pm each evening. Tickets are available from £5.