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Friday 7th December 2007
Christmas Theatre Review | GOD IN RUINS | RSC @ Soho Theatre

Production: God in Ruins
Playwright: Anthony Neilson
Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
Venue: Soho Theatre
Address: 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE
Box Office: +44 (0)870 429 6883
Dates: 29 November 2007 - 5 January 2008 (in repertoire)
Opened: 5 December 2007
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Reviewed by Harriet Davis

God in Ruins is a messy but enjoyable romp by renowned risk-taker Anthony Neilson, best known for his contribution to 1990s shock theatre. RSC Director Michael Boyd entrusted Neilson with a selection of his best actors, challenging him to come up with a script at the last possible moment. The result is fresh, funny and utterly unfocused.

Neilson re-works A Christmas Carol to give us a modern-day Scrooge in the form of a nihilistic TV exec (played by Brian Doherty, reminiscent of Dylan Moran in Black Books). It's Christmas Eve and our anti-hero (coincidentally also called Brian) is trying to get in touch with his estranged daughter, but his ex-wife is barring his calls because he's drunk. Brian exacts his revenge by parading naked pictures of her on the internet, posting them on sex sites, then pretending to be her online.

Brian is an abhorrent character: amoral, scheming and self-involved. Were he not played by the excellent Doherty, we might not be able to forgive him. Doherty adds a much-needed depth and humanity to the character, redeeming Brian's often repellent sense of humour. Here is a man who doesn't want to live but is fearful of death, who projects his palpable self-loathing onto those around him. Brian is also trying or rather failing to write a screenplay, which only adds to his existential angst.

Brian's redemption takes the shape of one of his characters the well-known Scrooge of old. But this Scrooge is already reformed; having shed his former skin he is now a cheerful, practical joke-playing irritation (played by Sean Kearns, hamming it up). Even Bob Cratchit can't stand him. However, why it is that Scrooge comes to Brian's rescue is something of a mystery; in fact, why he's there at all isn't entirely clear. If the audience hadn't realized by now that Brian is a Scrooge incarnation, then something is seriously amiss.

Brian is also haunted by a second ghost, that of his absent father. Like Brian, his father made a mess of his life; he drank, cheated and indulged in all manner of debauchery. It's rather a delicious role, which actor Sam Cox relishes. The father's posthumous punishment is that he be wedded to hundreds of wives, all of whom place demands on him. Any minor attempt to rebel results in another forced marriage. Cox's default facial expression head tipped forward, mouth strained open and gasping is both disturbing and extremely amusing.

The play is achingly contemporary and frequently feels more like a sketch show than a piece of drama. The jokes are bad-taste, and sometimes err on the chauvinistic (the play is notable for its absence of women). Neilson's ideas are admirably bold. When they work such as the digitalized 'second life' finale they're a riot; when they don't, they're rather embarrassing. Halfway through the second act the theatre is invaded by an aggressive tramp who apropos of nothing stabs Brian in the chest. Thus Brian's fate is wrapped up with a nifty deus-ex-machina, saving him all the trouble of self-realization.

The overriding theme, loosely based around the idea of transformation and second chances, is sketchily drawn, and several of the characters are underdeveloped. Despite this, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, and though the play is unlikely to have any lasting impact, it makes for a fun and sometimes anarchic night out.

Harriet Davis 2007

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