Following a run at the Chichester Festival Theatre and a brief regional tour, The Last Confession - Roger Crane’s new Vatican-set thriller starring David Suchet (pictured), opened on Monday night (2 July 2007) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it plays a limited 12 week season until 15 September 2007.

David Suchet, who plays Cardinal Benelli, is best known to TV fans for his portrayal of Agatha Christie's Poirot. He was most recently seen in Once in a Lifetime at the National in 2006 and Man and Boy in the West End in 2005.

The Vatican 1978: a little-known cardinal from Venice is elected to succeed Pope Paul VI. A compromise candidate, he takes the name Pope John Paul I, and quickly shows himself to be the liberal the reactionaries within the Catholic Church most feared. Just 33 days later, he is dead. No official investigation is conducted, no autopsy performed, and the Vatican’s press release about the cause of death is later found to be, in large part, false. And just the evening before his death, John Paul had warned three of his most influential but hostile cardinals that they would be replaced.

Suchet is joined in The Last Confession cast by Joseph Mydell and Michael Cronin as well as Paul Foster, Maroussia Frank, John Franklyn-Robbins, Michael Jayston, Charles Kay, Bernard Lloyd, Joseph Long, Roger May, Christoper Mellows, Stuart Milligan, Richard O’Callaghan, Bruce Purchase and Clifford Rose. The premiere production is directed by David Jones and designed by William Dudley, with costumes by Fotini Dimou, lighting by Peter Mumford and music by Dominic Muldowney. It’s produced by Duncan Weldon, Paul Elliott and Theatre Royal Haymarket Productions.

While the dialogue written by this first-time playwright, Roger Crane, was picked up by one or two critics as being “sententious” or “speculative,” the storyline was certainly appreciated as a gripping thriller, shrouded in papal intrigue. The performances won acclaim across the board, particularly Suchet’s, with his portrayal of the troubled Cardinal Benelli being praised as “compelling”. The show does suffer from its conventional approach in most eyes, and it is suggested that on a second viewing (after the Chichester Festival), the form is “distinctly tired” and the entire piece is a little more “mechanical”. However, this does not detract too much from the enjoyment in the mystery, and the overall impression is of an involving and gripping evening that never quite rises to the spectacular.

  • Michael Coveney (three stars) – "… this is a sombre, rather old-fashioned thriller, first seen at Chichester in May, that brings David Suchet back to the London stage as the scheming pope-maker Benelli, Cardinal of Florence, and offers him a fine opportunity to strut his ecclesiastical stuff… The great attraction of Crane’s play – the first ever by this 61 year-old New York lawyer – is its picture of a Catholic Church in turmoil… Pope Paul VI (Clifford Rose) is dying, and the effects of the previous incumbent’s (Pope John XXIII) efforts to "open the window of the church for a dialogue with the world" in the Second Vatican Council are still being resisted. Benelli’s manoeuvring of Luciani (Richard O'Callaghan), the Cardinal of Venice and the son of a bricklayer, into the top job promises a programme of practical reform. Luciani is a no-nonsense radical... This new pope lasted just thirty-three days, and the subsequent inquest has all the non-rigour of a police investigation into police corruption… In Chichester, David Jones’s production had a magnificent sweep on the large thrust stage, with cardinals processing down the aisles and William Dudley’s imposing design of great confessional grills and religious frescos conveying an epic quality. The play is squeezed tighter in the Haymarket, but the writing is also more cruelly exposed as completely clunky; the cardinals speak as if in quotation marks. Suchet is superb as Benelli, saturnine, struck with both ambition and guilt, and there are engaging performances from O’Callaghan as the breath of fresh air and John Franklyn-Robbins as the octogenarian conservative Ottaviani... it is a special pleasure to re-visit Charles Kay’s feline and supercilious Felici, head of the Vatican Supreme Court, a performance of rare, almost Japanese, intensity, compiled entirely of one great elegant, pop-eyed smirk."

  • Nicholas de Jongh in The Evening Standard (three stars) – "I would never have dreamed that the death of an obscure 20th-century Pope could provide inspiration for a beguiling theatrical whodunnit or at least a "did-anyone-do-it?" The Last Confession, premiered and much admired at Chichester's Festival Theatre in May, reveals the limitations of my dreams… The Last Confession does not merely delve into skulduggery. Crane, whose dialogue often sounds as if sententiously minted by some Hollywood scriptwriter familiar with religious epics, offers no information about what published sources he relied on to level his sensational charges. He does, however, suggest that John Paul's greatest supporter, the self-centred Cardinal Benelli, was prone to such nagging ambition to become Pope that he persuaded himself to be politic and abandon demands for an inquiry into John Paul's death. The play takes the distinctly tired form of the flashback, from the moribund moment when David Suchet's charismatic, brooding Benelli decides to make a final confession. The last five years of his life begin to be replayed before us… William Dudley's grand, impressionistic design conceives the Vatican as an imposing prison, with grille-like walls and marble-framed doors, set against a photographic back-projection of St Peter's. David Jones's evocative production hustles smoothly through the dusky corridors of power and reeks of suave menace as cardinals prowl and cluster in false shows of deference.The laboriously over-extended first half shows the closing phase of Paul VI's undecisive papacy in rickety decline and fall… Suchet's impressive Cardinal, a rueful figure who cannot come to terms with his longing for worldly glory at the expense of religious faith, unpacks his heart to Michael Jayston's authoritative, mysterious confessor. In closing moments of grim irony he burns his confession, as if to obliterate his imperious ego."

  • Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph - "Enjoy The Last Confession while you can. It could be one of the last of its kind. I warmly applauded Roger Crane's gripping Vatican thriller about the death of Pope John Paul I when it opened in Chichester in May and welcome this speedy transfer to the West End's Haymarket theatre. It's popular drama at its best, asking tough questions about faith and organised religion, while also exploring conspiracy theories about the possible murder of a truly holy man. With David Suchet as the power-broking, God-doubting Cardinal Benelli, it has a superbly compelling, beautifully detailed star performance at its centre, while the supporting cast of men in frocks brings the venomous rivalries within the Vatican to superbly entertaining life. Imagine The Da Vinci Code with brains and a dash of style and you will get some idea of what's on offer here."

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) – "In this West End transfer, it looks a little mechanical, the cogs and wheels of its plot workings plainly visible as it advances speculative theories surrounding the untimely demise of the "smiling Pope" John Paul I. But the great strength of David Jones’s production is its performances, chief among them David Suchet… Suchet’s Benelli is a darkly silky creature rent by a mounting crisis of faith and by his guilt over his unwitting complicity in Luciani’s destruction… With potent containment Suchet shows us how his view of Luciani shifts; from seeing him as useful pawn, he begins to regard him with envy and even awe, his simple belief in marked contrast to Benelli’s own tormenting doubts. Richard O’Callaghan’s Luciani, meanwhile, at first a diffident, tremulous figure in oversized spectacles, turns out as Pope to be both twinkly and tough. In his new white robes, surrounded by hostile bishops and cardinals in blood-red and crow-black, he looks like a lamb to the slaughter… Also excellent among a strong ensemble are Stuart Milligan, wolfish as Bishop Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank and associate of the ill-fated Roberto Calvi; and Bernard Lloyd as Secretary of State Villot, ruthlessly, and with a mounting sense of suppressed panic, defending the status quo. The play loses momentum after Luciani’s death, and the debates surrounding the tensions between church and state, spiritual and material, human and divine don’t emerge quite strongly enough. But when the powerplay between well-drawn characters is as finely acted as here, it grips."

    - by Stuart Denison