Is it possible to kickstart a new theatrical writing talent via a reality television programme? Kate Betts, a 51-year-old mother of three who teaches at Chichester University, is the first-time playwright who has won the Channel 4 contest in the four-part series The Play’s the Thing.
The programme’s producer, Jan Younghusband, used to work at the National Theatre under Sir Peter Hall, and suggested the scheme to producer Sonia Friedman. The TV programmes have made compelling, though sometimes embarrassingly grisly, viewing as the plays were whittled down from a final 30 to just three, which were then battered into some kind of shape by Friedman and her fellow judges, literary agent Mel Kenyon and actor Neil Pearson.
Betts’ play is about a woman, Claire (Maxine Peake), who works at the London Planetarium, harbours incestuous feelings for her brother Robbie (Tom McKay) and meets an environmental health officer, Mike (Paul Hilton), who claims he was “a sort of only child” and is, in fact, Jesus (maybe). He's not so much whistling down the wind as whistling in the dark. Friedman detected a theatrical vision in Betts’ play that's simply not evident in the performance. She wanted, she said, “to get lost” in Betts’ world; Neil Pearson wanted Betts’s world “to get lost”.
One would like to be encouraging in such circumstances, especially as Friedman has given Betts a fine cast, and Robert Delamere’s production, eye-catchingly designed by Mark Thompson, gives the script, which limps from scene to scene without any psychological or dramatic momentum, every possible chance. And every possible chance is wasted.
On TV, Friedman kept yelling at Betts that she hadn’t found any explanation for Claire’s crisis. She still hasn’t, beyond piling up symptoms of a sense of failure. Maxine Peake has played Myra Hindley in the ITV drama See No Evil and the slatternly Veronica in Channel 4’s Shameless. But she simply cannot find a way into Claire, who cuts herself with scissors and says things like “I am awash with words but I can’t swim”.
The best you can say of the play is that, lacking heart and logic, it could be excused as a messy dream. Thompson’s design responds by filling the stage with the amniotic fluid of a deserted beach, a night-time galaxy at the planetarium, the stained glass windows of a vaulted church, and the darkling caves of the Brecon Beacons. And Adam Cork’s soundtrack suddenly breaks out into “Mars” from the Planets as Claire, keen to get down to business, tells Jesus that she’s got some condoms.
The incestuous theme is fully stated, but not resolved, at Claire’s 30th birthday party where the “real” Jesus actor, Tom Silburn, turns up as an Elvis impersonator. One wonders how anyone kept a straight face at this point and can only congratulate the actors for giving Betts the benefit of the doubt in a non-play that beggars belief and would try the patience of a saint, let alone a West End audience.
- Michael Coveney