On 14 July 2005, the 50th anniversary of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, one might have expected to see one of the two Alan Ayckbourn plays running in the summer season. Instead the choice of Playing God, the first stage play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, removed any hint of comforting familiarity from the commemoration.
And, indeed, Marks and Gran, famous for creating TV’s Birds of a Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart, have come up with a comedy that’s anything but comforting. Playing God begins, like Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels, with an extended silence; in this case full of shock and disbelief. Rock superstar Ed has just informed his wife, Claudia, and their dinner-guests, Clive and Henri, that he has been diagnosed with cancer, in all probability, terminal.
Ed wishes to play God by making sure his agoraphobic wife copes after his death which means, he believes, finding a new man for her. One of his main candidates is Clive, whose own marriage to Henri is founded on his fear of her - and her contempt for him. As it happens, one of Claudia’s guilty secrets is her existing affair with Clive; the other is that, despite her status as an award-winning travel writer, she has never travelled anywhere and gets all her information from the internet, being afraid even to open the front door.
Now and then Marks and Gran stray into their familiar world of television sitcom. That we are expected to believe other travel writers haven’t noticed Claudia’s absence is a case in point, as is an occasional tendency to programme the gags rather than let them develop. However, there is also a refreshing willingness to take risks – the audience is clearly uneasy at times about the frankness of the treatment of both sex and death – as well as a cleverly balanced ambiguity about the motives, awareness and (in Ed’s case) health of the four characters.
Under director Laurie SansomPlaying God proves a convincing ensemble piece, perfectly paced and often effectively understated, with Pip Leckenby’s allusive designs suggesting an elegant mix of the cool and the classic. David Cardy as Ed is a fairly unlikely rock star (though, of course, his rat-eating days are behind him), but he skilfully projects a sincerity so real that we feel it must be fake. Becky Hindley, as Henri, has a magisterial line in contempt, but also shows the crumbling of certainties with subtlety and conviction. Both Clare Swinburne (Claudia) and David Sibley (Clive) deliver compelling studies in self-absorption: her chillingly amusing portrayal of the victim as predator is well complemented by his bruised manner and hovering panic at any invasion of his comfort zone.