On the Third Day, the winning play of Channel 4’s The Play's the Thing (See News, 13 Jun 2006), received its world premiere at the West End’s New Ambassadors Theatre last night (Thursday 22 June 2006, previews from 13 June). And today, 51-year-old first-time playwright Kate Betts is finding out what it’s like to face the critical onslaught.

In the four-part TV series, which concludes with opening night footage on tomorrow (Saturday 24 June 2006), producer Sonia Friedman – with the help of literary agent Mel Kenyon and actor Neil Pearson – were set the challenge of finding a never-before-produced writer and preparing their debut play for a professional commercial run. Over 2,000 aspiring playwrights entered the competition. Maxine Peake, Paul Hilton and Tom McKay star in the resulting stage production, which is directed by Robert Delamere after the original director Steven Pimlott fell ill (See News, 25 May 2006).

Many overnight critics admired the effort the producers, actors, directors and budding playwrights went to in bringing new work into the West End – which they said was a worthwhile experiment – but few were overly impressed by the winning play, which they felt was too muddled, ambiguous, slow and confusing to cut it in the commercial West End. While Betts has talent, ruled the critics, it has not yet flourished with this debut.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “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…. The best you can say of the play is that, lacking heart and logic, it could be excused as a messy dream… one can only congratulate the actors for giving Kate 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.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - Far more positive, Spencer confessed, "I was unexpectedly impressed by On the Third Day. This is a very weird drama indeed. There are shafts of comedy in all this, but the overall mood of Robert Delamere's gripping and beautifully acted production, is one of terrible pain. I'm a sucker for plays with religious dimensions; others may find the piece utter tosh. But there is no denying the ambition and depth of feeling in the writing. Maxine Peake gives a shatteringly raw, anguished performance. Paul Hilton is genuinely engaging…. And there is an emotional candour and generosity about Betts' writing that bodes well for the future."

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “One would have to be a blend of Scrooge, Rumpelstiltskin and Cruella de Vil not to wish this piece well… though Betts’ play is refreshingly bold and even original, it’s what she herself called it: a bit whimsical and raw. Sadly, it’s less than the sum of its ambitions, which are to deal with trauma, grief, incest and the confusions of an infinitely vast universe and the almost equally complex world in which a bloke calling himself Jesus may actually be an environmental health officer named Mike, but just may be that ontological EHO, Jesus.” He added, encouragingly: “If I’m asked to take sides in the argument on TV between Friedman and one of her advisers, Neil Pearson — ‘I want to get lost in Betts’s world’, 1I want her world to get lost’ — I’m more with the producer than the actor.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - Billington said the play “is certainly not the disaster that some were expecting and a few keenly anticipating: it is a raw, wild, uneven piece that reveals a degree of theatrical imagination… The second half… lapses into whimsy. And the flashbacks to Claire's childhood religiosity, when she believes she encounters Jesus in a deserted church, suggest Whistle Down the Wind without the music. Yet I was never bored and Betts reveals a bold theatrical sense… Betts displays a gift for wry humour… For a debutant dramatist, she has also been well served by her interpreters. Robert Delamere's production and Mark Thompson's design whisk us briskly from childhood past to adult present and from south London to the Welsh countryside. Maxine Peake as the confused Claire, Tom McKay as her importunate brother and Paul Hilton as the haggard Mike, echoing the biblical Christ he played in the RSC Mysteries, also serve the text honourably.” Billington concluded: “there is enough in her (Betts’) play to make me feel she has a wayward talent.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - Taylor “wondered why such a talented cast and such excellent production values had been lavished on a drama of which I couldn't really believe a word, even while recognising the sincerity of the writing… you feel an awkward disproportion between this purported amplitude and the actual emotional dimensions of the play… From the point of view of finding new talent, it would have been better to spend the money on a mini-festival at the Bush or the Gate. But that would not have been invidious enough for TV, which will never be theatre's route to rescue.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “Practising masochists, interested in experiencing the oppressive boredom and angry bewilderment that a chronically inept piece of theatre can induce, should rush to savour Kate Betts' On the Third Day.” De Jongh admired “Maxine Peake's touchingly distraught, 30-year-old Claire” but said “director Robert Delamere and designer Mark Thomson, who variously turns the stage into planetarium, apartment and sea-shore, cannot rescue the play from its hectic, almost comic preposterousness, or do anything about its shifts from one theatrical plane to another… Peake's intense, neurotically powered performance and Paul Hilton's cool one are the evening's only consolations… Certainly Friedman's aim was brave, worthwhile and imaginative… Betts can write natural-sounding dialogue, but on this evidence, she does not know how to put a play together.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell