There is a strange moment in the second act of Roger Crane’s play about the papal succession and politics in the Vatican when the innocent new Pope John Paul I protests to a stage full of cardinals that “I am what I am!” Surely these men in red frocks won’t break into a chorus from La Cage aux Folles?

No, they won’t, for 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 year is 1978 and Benelli is confessing his crime – “I have killed the emissary of God” – as the play begins, but things are a little more complicated than that. 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 who will not be carried into St Peter’s for his coronation and who sends a telegram of congratulation to the parents of the first test tube baby in Britain.

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 the background hovers the sale of the Catholic Bank of Venice and the mysterious suicide of the financier Roberto Calvi in London.

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.

The cast is the same as at Chichester, except for John Cormack replacing Bruce Purchase as Baggio, and 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.

--Michael Coveney