The wonderful Derek Jacobi, who is a most respected actor, has not been seen on the London stage since “Uncle Vanya” at the Albery in 1996, so I was particularly looking forward to seeing him treading the boards again in the West End. Unfortunately, his talent is wasted on Hugh Whitemore's mediocre new play “GOD ONLY KNOWS”.
Set in the present day, on a peaceful evening in Tuscany, the drama concerns four holidaymakers whose peace is shattered when a fugitive’s car crashes near their villa and they go to his rescue. The stranger says he is on the run from the Vatican who are out to kill him because he possesses knowledge of something that appears to prove that there was no resurrection. He claims that if this proof was to get out it would destroy Christianity. Therefore the Vatican intends killing him so as to keep it secret.
The first act is messy and I have to say I found the stranger, Humphrey Biddulph, played by Derek Jacobi, somewhat irritating and the altercations between the actors bizarre and unbelievable! The play only becomes interesting in the second act when a theological argument takes place. In fact, I feel the play would have been much better if there was no ‘silly’ story about being chased and instead just had a group of people discussing the subject!
The ‘religious philosophical’ discussion is hardly dizzy intellectual stuff. If this was a play written a century ago, one could understand something of its context. Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, John Mills, the nature of ethics and morality and whether religion was needed to keep society ‘civillised’ were genuine questions debated amongst people. Today, it all seems an excursion into the irrelevant. Only on the subject of spirituality did it seem to enter into the mindset of this generation. Does one need to believe in God or life after death to be spiritual and what is spirituality anyway? Is it something we should value as human beings and can we have it without dogma? However, this aspect of the discussion is merely visited briefly in the play before returning to the theism versus atheism debate.
I suppose the angle of the play is not only to make you think about God and faith etc.. but to decide whether Humphrey is actually telling the truth about being hunted, or that maybe he has actually escaped from a mental institution.
The rest of the cast performed competently, but frankly there isn’t any depth to the characters. They are merely there in order for the discussion to take place.
This is what the popular press had to say.....RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Jacobi gets the balance right so we are never sure whether he is an intellectual or a lunatic, while the couples prove paradigms of chattering-class blandness.” DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “Whether or not the evening is wholly satisfying, it's still good to see big ideas being kicked around for a couple of hours.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “ I don’t feel Whitemore’s attempt simultaneously to give us a paranoid thriller and a sort of anti-sermon is wholly successful.” SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "Far and away the most spectacularlarly awful drama to have hit the West End this century." JOHN PETERS for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This is a terrific play, tense. tough, sinewy, intelligent and a real boost for the West End." MADELINE NORTH for TIME OUT says, "The Catholic conspiracy thriller, once it gets going, is quite entertaining..." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says Derek Jacobi is in "brilliant form".
“God Only Knows”, is a shallow play that doesn’t bring any new light on the subject of religion.
(Production photo by John Haynes)