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Entertaining Angels (tour – Cambridge)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The applause-garnering set is a warning. At first glance, it's realistic, even old-fashioned in the way it presents us with the exterior of one of those graciously proportioned, mellow-bricked Georgian rectories in the English countryside. A second glance reveals walls which don't quite join up, mirrored panels which swing open and naturalistic greenery melting into artificiality.

All this reflects the themes and format of Richard Everett's comedy – one not of manners but of understandings. Director Alan Strachan takes it all as seriously as does designer Paul Farnsworth but his cast is perhaps a little less steady. The pivotal character is Grace, newly widowed and so required to leave her home of many decades as a new rector is inducted. Both her daughter Jo and missionary sister Ruth expect her to move on in a fashion which reflects her Christian name. That's something which she won't indeed can't do.

The dead man potters in and out of the action, as does his replacement. Both have past secrets which affect the present; nobody, Everett seems to be saying, is perfect. Thank you, we know that. There are more things in heaven and earth... some of us know that too. Which all puts a burden on the cast to keep the audience engaged as well as amused.

Penelope Keith as Grace makes the most of her character's determination to organise life (past, present and future) on her own terms, and Carolyn Backhouse's Jo is a credible portrait of a young woman who has to ink her own problems beneath those of the rest of her family. Ruth is the least credible of all these slightly selfish people, though Polly Adams has great fun with the eccentricities of the part.

Dithering if not doddering in and out of the dramas so negligently unfolding in the rectory gardens is the late Bardolph, to whom Benjamin Whitrow affords a nice blend of self-will and pastoral understanding. The catalyst for all the revelations is Sarah {Claudia Elmhirst], representative of the new breed of vicarage inhabitant and drifting elements of her Biblical namesake across the story. Ruth may be someone reaping a foreign field, Grace may not be amazing – but Sarah is fecund.

Plays about religious people, not to mention plays about religion, tend to come in secular dress these days, whether sung or spoken. We're not as comfortable with the eternal as were previous generations with the convictions of T S Eliot, C S Lewis or Christopher Fry among others. This attempt to re-create a particular genre tips towards whimsy where it should be shooting beyond the stars. It makes you think, yes. But not, in the end, really care.


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