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Walking away from religion

31 May 2013

Peter Graystone sees an unbelievable twist on a familiar problem

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ABOUT halfway through Sarah Page's début play, Pilgrims, there is a superb scene in which three likeable teenagers discuss why church plays no meaningful part in their lives. It is all about sex and absent fathers - no surprise there. But the dialogue is sharp and witty, and when one of them says, "Our father is gone," neither the audience not the characters are sure whether it is an earthly or heavenly father whose loss they feel.

Beth (beautifully played by Stephanie Hyam) is faking illness so that she doesn't have to go with her mother to the mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Hyde Park. Her boyfriend, Jay (Dinarte Gouveia), has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, but has rejected religion altogether. He is taken by surprise that she is a Roman Catholic, because nothing that Beth says or does at school reveals any trace of her spirituality. But it isn't that she has hidden her faith at school: she has hidden her lack of faith at church.

Meanwhile, her brother, Will (a third excellent performance), is trying to keep panic attacks at bay through obsessive repetition. Going to church seems to have no impact on his everyday behaviour. It is the atheist, Jay, who has the most integrity of the three, and he challenges Beth to work out what she believes, instead of marking time until she can walk away and pay no heed to such a boring subject again. Doesn't she believe that the family will all be together in the afterlife? "I've had enough of us all being together in this life."

Unfortunately, around this crackling scene are 60 minutes of overwrought ranting and dramatic contrivance. The unsympathetic mother, attempting to nag her children into the Kingdom of God, is completely unbelievable as a Christian. And the vitriolic grandfather is unbelievable as a human of any kind. The surprise that he springs late in the play leads to the mother's breakdown. We are supposed to find her perverted religious tirade sacrilegious, but in fact it is just embarrassing. The director, Kevin Williams, seems aware of this, because he drowns it in blasts of rock music which emerge from nowhere.

The London stage has an unusually large number of plays about religion this year. In Disgraced, at the Bush Theatre, a New York lawyer who has suppressed his Islamic inheritance takes on a case that forces raw faith to crack the veneer. At the Prince of Wales Theatre, The Book of Mormon ( Arts, 12 April) lets the sect condemn itself in a preposterous, musical outrage. Pilgrims will be recognisable to every parent who has tried to coax an adolescent out of bed and into church. But it is the Muslims who brilliantly nail the urgent issues of present-day faith, and the Mormons who have the most fun.

Pilgrims runs at The Etcetera Theatre, above The Oxford Arms, Camden High Street, London NW1, until 9 June. Phone 020 7482 4857. www.etceteratheatre.com

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