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 of religion.
[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 primarily The Sanctuary Lamp is an intelligent and witty reflection on the nature of humanity.
- Joanna Ing