Despite being declared a "thundering
disgrace" by the Catholic Church for its anti-religious sentiment when it was
first performed in 1975, Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp
is a deeply profound and spiritual play. This is a great opportunity to see
B*spoke theatre’s revival directed by the renowned playwright himself.
Three misfits are drawn into a
church. Harry, an ex-circus strongman first of all seeks shelter in the
building. Finding him there, the Monsignor of the church offers him a job as
caretaker, the main task of which is to keep the sanctuary lamp burning. Harry
soon discovers that another troubled soul, 16-year old Maudie, is already
sleeping in the confessional. They are soon joined by the shifty
Francisco, another refugee of the circus, who had run off with Harry’s
contortionist wife. They each tell their tales and philosophise on the nature
Robert O’Mahoney gives a tragic
and humorous performance as the confused former strongman with an idiosyncratic
way of speaking. Declan Conlon’s Francisco is a likeable character - his sly
approaches towards Maudie appear to be more attention craving than anything
more sinister. Kate Brennan plays the broken Maudie with wide-eyed
simplicity. While her own account is heartbreaking her role is more effective
as a foil to the other two. Bosco Hogan is a detached Monsignor, more focused
on his own disappointments than what is going on his church.
Set designer Monica Frawley and
lighting designer Ben Ormerod manage to convincingly transform the
low-ceilinged warehouse space of Dalston’s Arcola into a spacious, echoing
church. Large pillars, rows of pews and two rose-coloured shafts of light
suggest an impressive interior with stained glass windows. The effect is so
convincing that you may find yourself speaking in hushed tones when you file
out for the interval.
Murphy turns Catholicism on its head
in The Sanctuary Lamp, playing with its customs and
language. Confessions are not given to the Monsignor, but out loud to each
other. Francisco rails angrily against the church, Maudie retains a simple belief
and seeks forgiveness and Harry has his own unique spirituality. In Murphy’s
witty dialogue, Francisco argues, “God made the world right? And fair play to
him, but what has he done since?”, while Harry discusses the holy family as if
they were living next door.
It is perhaps not surprising that the church protested
on the play’s first outing: there are some uncomfortable truths here. But
primarilyThe Sanctuary Lampis an intelligent and witty
reflection on the nature of humanity.