Twenty-one years ago Racing Demon won the Olivier Award for Best Play. Three years later it re-emerged as the first and finest part of David Hare’s “State of the Nation” trilogy. So how does it stand up in the second decade of the 21st century? The first impression is that the state of the nation hasn’t changed too much: issues to do with evangelicalism, fundamentalism, homosexuality and women priests still bedevil the Church of England and the popular press can be relied on to pursue spurious scandals with a due sense of moral outrage.
Racing Demon still impresses enormously in the precision of its dialogue, its control of tone and its humanity and compassion, though now some characters, especially the women, appear unduly schematic. The Rev. Lionel Espy leads a team ministry in a London parish, generally impoverished, but, crucially, with middle-class and even upper-crust communicants. The three priests are clearly good men, working together in harmony and friendship, but how much Christian leadership do they give their parishioners? Into their world intrude a worldly bishop looking for a scapegoat, an evangelical curate with an ambition to restore Bible Christianity and a reporter for a Sunday paper working on a story on the Church’s gay Mafia.
David Hare’s sympathy lies with Rev. Espy and his team, but the strength of Racing Demon as a play of ideas is the fair-mindedness with which the arguments are presented. Written in the last months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, Racing Demon unsurprisingly stresses the inhumanity of conviction without consideration, but the question over the effectiveness of Lionel and his team remains.
The play presents superb acting parts for all six clerical characters. One of the most memorable stage performances I have ever seen was Oliver Ford-Davies as Lionel Espy and Malcolm Sinclair, remarkably, lives up to that: from his opening prayer to God to reveal himself more (cloaked in amusingly colloquial language) he projects the conviction of doubt with wit, precision and humanity. As Rev. Harry Henderson, with his bluff dependable exterior and tenuous control over his private life, Ian Gelder can’t erase memories of the great Michael Bryant, but never puts a foot wrong, and Matthew Cottle is “Streaky” Bacon, the cock-eyed optimist of the C of E, to the life. As the curate, Tony Ferris, Jamie Parker veers dangerously between callow apology and terrifying certainty, and Jonathan Coy and Mark Tandy, as two self-serving bishops, persuade us that they believe in something. Emma Hamilton plays Frances Parnell with intelligence and skill, but her role as errant daughter of a major C of E family/informant from the pews of power/Tony’s ex-lover/confidante of Lionel Espy simply ticks too many boxes.
Daniel Evans’ production features excellent individual performances, but never quite makes the vast acting area compatible with so many intimate scenes – or perhaps the sense of distance is deliberate, aided by Tom Rogers’ coolly elegant minimalist designs.