Anthony Neilson’s working title for his new play - God in Ruins - presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Soho Theatre after a period of development in rehearsal with an all-male company of 11 actors, could imply a) the end of organised religion or b) signs of divinity among the human wreckage.
Elements of b) are more paramount, as the starting off point of a parody of A Christmas Carol – with Bob Cratchit inviting Scrooge to get lost with his overweening offers of seasonal hospitality – is ditched in the story of a drunken television producer trying to get in touch with his daughter.
There is a sort of desperation about it all that is, in the end, quite appealing. Neilson, who also directs, and his company - who all figured in the RSC’s year-long Complete Works Festival’s double of Macbeth and Ionesco’s Macbett at Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year - have certainly come up with a good night’s theatre.
At one point, they all assemble, each singing a Christmas carol in a madcap canon that can only be terminated in an arbitrary fashion. At another, the lights come up in the auditorium and a disillusioned soldier from the operation in Basra invades the stage, appeals to the audience and cries “A horse!” when he realises where he is.
As in his recent large-stage pieces, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Realism, Neilson proves himself a genuine surrealist whose black sense of humour tinges a reckless delight in theatre for its own sake. This is an unusual strand in contemporary British theatre and it will be interesting to see if it leads to a major large-scale contribution with the RSC.
God in Ruins feels like a sketch. The television producer Brian (Brian Doherty) is visited by ghosts, fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous and a flatmate in a wheelchair on whom he tries out an idea for a new reality programme about subjecting homosexuals to corrective torture, “Guantanamo Gay”.
Brian is posting naked pictures of his estranged wife on the internet and eventually hooks up with the daughter (Patrick Kane doubles this robotic role with Cratchit in the first scene) in a parallel universe, a digital continent of virtual figures who seems to have exchanged the gritty realities of life on earth for simple-minded cyber life.
We are invited to make of this what we will. There’s always the acting to enjoy, especially the rumpled disintegration of Mr Doherty as well as the soothing calmness of Jude Akuwudike as an African-robed counsellor, Sam Cox as the white-painted ghost of Scrooge and Ryan Gage as the soldier.