During the televised search for a new play to put on in the West End, the panel of the Channel 4 programme The Play’s The Thing – producer Sonia Friedman, literary agent Mel Kenyon and actor Neil Pearson – received scripts from over 2,000 novice playwrights, and of those scripts, 81 were about Jesus. The winning play, which had its press night last night, was one of them. Caroline Bishop went along to the New Ambassadors to find out what the hell it was all about…
The TV crew from Channel 4 were rushing about outside the New Ambassadors last night, filming the gaggle of industry figures, celebrities and interested parties supping wine and waiting in anticipation for the world premiere of On The Third Day, a new play by Kate Betts, the university lecturer and novice playwright whose first full length play beat off stiff competition to win the The Play’s The Thing and be produced by Sonia Friedman in the West End.
Friedman has not scrimped on the staging of this play, which opens with a dramatic seascape projected on to the three walls which encase the stage. Mark Thompson’s design and Jon Driscoll’s projections also recreate the Greenwich Planetarium where Betts’s central character, Claire (Maxine Peake) works, and the Brecon Beacon caves where her brother is a professional pot-holer.
Claire is a troubled, vulnerable 30-year-old, who lost both her parents at a young age leaving only her younger brother Robbie (Tom McKay), from whom she is now estranged. Her life is constantly affected by her past – she has no friends with which to celebrate her 30th birthday, she has strange dreams of drowning at sea and is tormented by memories of the incestuous relationship she had with her brother as a child. Consequently, she cuts her arms with scissors.
One night Claire picks up a guy called Mike (Paul Hilton) in a bar and invites him back to her flat. Before she can get him into bed, he tells her he is Jesus. Needless to say, she’s fairly freaked out by this, but he is hard to get rid of, and over the next three days he takes it upon himself to look after Claire and help her deal with her demons. This scenario leaves Betts plenty of opportunity for Jesus-related quips – Mike’s birthday is 25 December, he’s afraid of heights, his dad is a consultant, his step-dad a kitchen fitter. Hilton also looks the part, in tunic-like white tops and baggy trousers, with a beard and straggly hair.
In the second half Mike forces Claire and Robbie to meet and deal with their past, and the play becomes a mix of dark, emotional moments and oddly comic scenes – a last supper-style scene sees ‘Jesus’ dining in a pizza restaurant in Streatham with Elvis singing Happy Birthday to Claire as she faces her brother for the first time in five years.
Betts certainly tries to tackle a lot in her debut work, and the cast gives its all to this, the winning play in what was a highly challenging project for Friedman and co.