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Review: Racing Demon (Theatre Royal Bath)

David Haig and Paapa Essiedu star in David Hare's play about the Church of England

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Sydney's loss will surely prove Bath's gain. After a (very) brief sojourn that never truly started Down Under, Jonathan Church takes over the imposing handle from Sir Peter Hall of artistic director of the Theatre Royal's summer season. In his first work he produces an assured take on David Hare's modern masterpiece Racing Demon.

It possesses all the ingredients we've come to expect of theatre in this picturesque city; a high sheen set design from Simon Higlett that moves us around the south London boroughs where the play is located; a team sheet that runs deep and a star performer at the heart - in this case David Haig, a Bath regular that audiences flock to see. Yet where in the past these things have appeared there to distract from the occasional beige work going on, here it complements a play that, close to thirty years after its premiere, still feels like it has something relevant to say.

When Hare originally took to exploring the state of the great institutions of Britain, things were in a different place. Now the Church of England, which is this play's focus, have seen women bishops ordained since 2012. Modernisation has slowly seeped in. Yet so many of the worries the institute and the characters articulate don't seem to have changed much, in many ways they have worsened. What is the role of the church when 53 per cent of the country at last poll define themselves as 'not religious', when the Sunday pulpits diminish further and further in number? What should we ask of our vicars, priests and bishops in a world where their relevance and power are fading further than ever?

Haig's Rev Lionel Espy, is a decent unassuming man spiritually hollowed out by not being able to offer his parishioners or his loved ones the comfort they need. He doesn't connect in the way the church would like him to, his spirituality is questioned and any embers of love that he shared with his wife (Amanda Root making the most of a small role) seem to have fizzled out at the same time their children left the roost apparently never to return. Haig is probably known best for his genial demeanour that explodes into incandescent rage when pushed too far. Here that catharsis never takes place. The agony underneath is never let out. For one moment a hint of romance seems to change his energy, he floats with possibility, yet deep down he knows it can only be a dream. At another he receives a b*llocking standing stock still, the weight of the world bearing down on him. Yet he doesn't fight back with anger, he fights his battle with a calm determination of someone who believes in his divine rightness. A leading role that is genially passive is the hardest to pull off. It is to Haig's credit he constantly demands watching.

His diametric opposite is a young reverend with ambition to bring God to the masses which brings him to the attention of the gruff Bishop of Southwark (Anthony Calf - boo hiss in his villainy). Rising star Paapa Essiedu isn't afraid to show the unpleasant, willing to sacrifice everything and anyone to further himself, yet still pulls sympathy when we realise what has brought him to where he is. His moment talking about God's purpose in taking his parents from him in a motorway accident is heart breaking. The anger wells up, God is the only thing he has left now, no wonder he is going out swinging for him. Having made his breakthrough in the Bristol playing Romeo, he adds another notch here, dominating the stage and standing shoulder to shoulder with heavyweights of character acting which also includes Ian Gelder and William Chubb.

It's a strong start to a project that could make Bath a destination venue again and not just for its lovely walk along the Avon of a long summer evening. At Chichester, Church had the enviable knack of producing work that would make their way into the West End. Don't be surprised if this follows.

Racing Demon plays at Theatre Royal Bath until 8 July.