The first production in Jonathan Church’s inaugural season at Theatre Royal Bath, Racing Demon is the great David Hare’s 13th play, first performed at The National in 1990, and expectations were further elevated when it was announced that Olivier-award-winning David Haig would lead the cast.
Centred around the double standards of the Church of England, and how it struggles to appear relevant to parishioners in the modern world, the lives of four men of the cloth in several tough South London boroughs are duly tested. Haig plays Lionel Epsy, a well-meaning reverend who is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his role, whilst having to manage the radical black curate, Tony Ferris (Paapa Essiedu), a man more interested in serving himself than serving God. Amanda Root meanwhile puts in a strong performance as Lionel’s long suffering wife, Heather.
Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon (Sam Alexander), is a genial reverend with a taste for tequila, while Ian Gelder returns to the role of Harry Henderson, a gay priest threatened with a ruinous newspaper exposé. From the old-boys-club Bishop who doesn’t like the idea of women in the church, to the inherent homosexuality that everyone turns a blind eye to as long as it doesn’t make the tabloids, the tone, aided by Simon Higlett’s sombre set and costume designs, is intentionally pompous and preacherish.
Nor are any of the characters sufficiently appealing so as to make us feel moved by the questionable morality of the hierarchical body they represent, and which Hare seeks to hold a mirror up to. Haig, one of the greatest stage actors of our generation, is a shining light in an otherwise gloomy evening of drama, for his pain and and building frustration is utterly absorbing, although we never entirely empathise due to his utter weakness as a man.
With society having changed a great deal in the nigh-on thirty years since Racing Demon was first staged, today’s audience is doubtless even more unconvinced whether the Church can ever heal its great divisions, and that by making gradual allowances in order to keep hold of their ever dwindling parishioners, its core values are further diluted to the point of hypocrisy.
Despite the quality of the cast and the fact that the play possesses many strong themes and the occasional witicicism worth remembering, it’s an evening of outdated Anglican turmoil that ultimately leaves one as cold, uncomfortable and fidgety as a church service on a winter’s morning. That said, the weight of the acting means that it will almost certainly find its way to the West End.
Racing Demon at Theatre Royal Bath until 8th July 2017. Production images by Nobby Clark. For more information and tickets please visit the website.