The Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham
11th January 2014
“What might have happened is the greatest of all mysteries” (Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File) A tantalising glimpse of what the Roman Catholic church may have been today is afforded by this intimate and absorbing production by the exceptionally talented Patesian Players. Written by their founder, former Pate’s Grammar school drama teacher Rory O’Sullivan, the symbolically titled Vatican Spring transports us to a religious parallel universe, documenting the hypothetical papacy of the reformist Pope John Paul I, who, in reality, died in 1978 after only 33 days in office. His earnest desire to drag Catholicism it from its deep, dark and dogma-bound winter into a more enlightened era which will witness a tolerance towards gays and the ordination of women is expressed lucidly and affectionately in a lengthy exchange of letters between himself and chirpy young Irish girl Molly Flynn, during which they forge a close bond but, sadly, never meet.
Her witty and honest epistles to His Holiness, offering her forthright perspectives on Ulster’s Troubles, working beyond 65, boyfriends and numerous other issues which affect the faithful, become a source of inspiration that will have repercussions around the world. By her late teens, her letters have evolved beyond mere pen-pal level to displaying commendable maturity and insight, indeed she speaks for us all when she pleads “Where is the moral leadership?” I could almost see the lights go on in the collective audience mind.
It was an intriguing what-if scenario that drew me inexorably in, garnished with some gentle humour, including John Paul’s stole snagging on a chair leg, momentary distractions from the many reminders of the grim state of the world in the 1980s, notably the African famine, unending terrorist atrocities and the Cold War which punctuated his reign. Equally welcome, therefore, were the appropriately solemn musical segues featuring sacred excerpts from William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, sung by the harmonious a cappella quartet beneath a beautiful rose window that kept watch over a simple set comprising Molly’s bed and the Pope’s desk.
Molly herself was portrayed through her formative years by three animated and remarkably gifted actresses: the young teenagers Arianwen Herbert and Annabel Morgan, both of whom clearly have bright futures on the stage, sharing the role throughout the first act, before yielding to resident Patesian Naina Nightingale who saw Molly through to adulthood. Chris Carter capably filled the marginal role of Cardinal Bellitoni, but at the heart of this sweet verbal tennis match lay a tour-de-force performance of the 263rd Bishop of Rome from the aptly, if coincidentally, named Freddie Pope who invested his namesake with a warmth and sincerity that left me wishing that the real pontiff had lived considerably longer than his 68 earthly years.
Thought-provoking whilst still entertaining, this was a very different but nonetheless touching and beguiling tale that moved at a stately pace to its deserved sustained ovation at the final curtain. Blessings upon all.