John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt received its British premiere this week (26 November, previews from 22 November) at north London’s Tricycle Theatre, in a production directed by artistic director Nicolas Kent, which has a limited run until 12 January 2008.
Doubt is set in a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964 and follows the diverse points of view of its four characters after Sister Aloysius expresses her doubt about the nature of Father Flynn’s relationship with the school’s first black pupil. Sister Aloysius reveals her concerns about Father Flynn to the inexperienced but enthusiastic Sister James. A verbal battle of wills ensues as Sister Aloysius instigates a campaign to remove the priest from the institution. The truth is never revealed and all four characters and the audience are left in doubt about the validity of their thoughts and judgments.
Doubt received its world premiere in 2004 Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, later transferring to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre where it won four Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The new UK production stars Dearbhla Molloy as the obstinate Sister Aloysius, Padraic Delaney as Father Flynn, Marcella Plunkett as Sister James and Nikki Amuka Bird as the student’s mother, Mrs Muller.
First night critics admired Doubt’s courage in tackling “vexed and unfashionable views” but felt that something was lacking in the overall narrative, making the production “a disappointment”. Opinions on Dearbhla Molloy and Padraic Delaney were also mixed; some found them “monotonous”, while others praised Molloy’s “superb performance”. There was praise for Nicolas Kent’s direction which turns “the screw at all the right places”, but it appears that, if critics are right, its future beyond Kilburn is “doubtful”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Nicolas Kent’s production turns the screw at all the right places, though the acting of Delaney and the usually more luminous Molloy sometimes verges on the monotonous. John Gunter’s neat but clunky set moves between pulpit, school garden and Sister’s office with noisy efficiency. The 80-minute play seems contrived until the resonating power of it breaks through; and then it packs an emotional and moral punch not dissimilar to Terence Rattigan at his best in boy-centred plays like The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version, the difference being that here, we never meet the young man himself.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Scepticism, said Brecht, can move mountains. But, while John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama similarly hymns the virtues of honest doubt, it doesn't always practice what it preaches. As an 80-minute moral thriller, it is highly effective. The rigidity of its form, however, allows little latitude for exploration of its enlightened ideas ... Nicolas Kent's production, however, is well acted, and skilfully ratchets up the tension. Dearbhla Molloy avoids making Sister Aloysius too palpable a villain by highlighting her flecks of humanity. Padraic Delaney is excellent as Father Flynn, implying an edge of unease beneath the charm. I admire the play for raising big issues. I just wish Shanley's parable tested, rather than simply reinforced, our easy liberal assumptions about the dangers of moral certainty and the delights of doubt.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Where the play does seem to me daring is its suggestion, similar to Alan Bennett's in The History Boys, that the occasional fumble between adult and child may not always be the most mortal of sins, and the drama's insistence that doubt and even despair are often at the very centre of spiritual faith ... Though I believe Doubt to be flawed, I salute Shanley for raising such vexed and unfashionable views. Dearbhla Molloy gives a superb performance … Her portrayal seems to encapsulate many of the paradoxes of faith … Padraic Delaney as the fresh-faced priest seems blessed with all the attractive warmth and spontaneity Sister Aloysius' holy gorgon apparently lacks, and there is strong support from Nikki Amuka-Bird … Nicolas Kent's absorbing production richly deserves a West End transfer but in these dumbed-down, pagan days, I fear Doubt's commercial prospects could prove, well, doubtful.”
Simon Edge in the Express (three stars) - “Its central puzzle - whether there is truth in an apparently malicious charge of child-molesting - seems less about three-dimensional characters clashing in a real conflict than the writer’s transparent desire to manipulate them, and us, for a pre-ordained dramatic purpose … Dearbhla Molloy has undeniable stage presence but she plays Sister Aloysius as a pantomime villain, making it implausible that her suspicion could ever be valid, while Padraic Delaney never lets us believe the charges might be true until the script tells us so. For me, things perked up when Donald’s mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird) suggested her effeminate son might not mind being interfered with, which was the first time the play escaped from cliché into the unexpected. But it was too little, too late, and I couldn’t help think that Hollywood does this kind of thing - twists and turns that mess with the audience’s head - so much better, and without the theatrical self-importance.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “It's hard to imagine Nicolas Kent's lacklustre production keeping tongues wagging on the long walk back down Kilburn High Road; indeed, my friend and I had covered several more engaging topics by the time we reached the station … For this to sparkle instead of sputter, the balance of doubt needs to be precision-maintained throughout. But here it's not: we're mighty certain that behind all Sister Aloysius' squinty intensity lies a good heart, rather than a vendetta against twitchy Father Flynn and his oddly revealing tracksuit trousers. Molloy neatly suggests that the sister is tired of an oppressively phallocentric church hierarchy, but not so that she would jeopardise her school. It strikes me as a cheap ploy to make the purported object of Flynn's attentions the school's first black pupil, as if this racial element automatically ups the dramatic ante. The opposite is the case, as attention is diluted away from the fascinating core topic of the abuse of power, in all its forms. Doubt: a disappointment.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) - “Shanley’s is an intriguing and potentially absorbing premise, but, despite Nicolas Kent’s well-acted production, the play is neither sufficiently tough-minded and complex, nor sparky enough to make a persuasive thriller. Shanley moves his underwritten characters about like chess pieces rather than people. The play’s structure, of contained discursive scenes interspersed with Flynn’s sermons or teaching monologues, is theatrically uninteresting; and it doesn’t begin to crackle with tension until it draws close to its tantalisingly ambiguous ending. John Gunter’s monolithic set design suggests the weighty stone of religious edifices, constructed out of and upon faith; a basketball hoop on the court where Father Flynn and the boys play hangs over the priest’s head like a tarnished halo … Shanley’s writing, though, needs more power and precision to be a serious provocation.”
- by Kate Jackson & Tom Atkins