AFTER the seriousness of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the story of St Thomas Becket was just waiting to be retold in the form of a musical comedy — or so James Cary thought.
Cary is the author of The God Particle, The Monk’s Tale, and various TV and radio scripts. He is also a member of the General Synod.
His new play, A Turbulent Priest — the title is allegedly the phrase used by King Henry II to describe his Archbishop — stars just two actors: Johnny Fairclough and Anna Newcome. The pair play a succession of parts, but interestingly, Newcome plays Becket, contrasting with the “strongly male presence” of King Henry (Fairclough). Paradoxically, Newcombe dominates throughout the evening, outstaging her co-star in volume and expression.
Cary’s script guides the audience through the narrative, using St George and St Thomas the Apostle as narrators (Becket was born on St Thomas’s feast day). Cary does not assume much preliminary knowledge among his audience: in fact, some of the gags are over-explained.
The production’s best moments came when it took a breather from determinedly following the historical plot. Debates about “wiggle room” v. “wriggle room”, as well as a topical quip about border control, engaged the audience in a way that the continued jokes about Latin-speaking did not. The moments of physical comedy also worked well — unsurprisingly, since Cary has previously written for BBC’s Miranda.
The songs and lyrics in the show by James Sherwood were wonderfully ridiculous, (rhyming of “courtier” with “naughtier”), and included a Church v. State rap battle. I saw it early in the run, but the musical numbers had the potential to engage the audience more than they did.
At the point of Becket’s death, the play continued to dangle between solemnity and farce, eventually coming down on the side of lightness, declaring the moral of the story to be “keep your receipts.” This slightly jarring conclusion, none the less, neatly wrapped up the biographical tale, and the two timelines of the play became one as Becket joined his saintly narrators.
Altogether, Cary and Sherwood’s commitment to comprehensive storytelling is admirable, and a touch of 12th-century silliness makes this a happy two hours of escapism.
A Turbulent Priest will be touring the UK until 11 May: the remaining performances are at St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage, 27 April; St Dunstan’s, Mayfield, East Sussex (Mayfield Fringe), 9 May; St Andrew’s, Hove (Brighton Fringe), 10, 11 May.