Review: God's Dice (Soho Theatre)

David Baddiel’s play has its premiere in Soho, with Alan Davies leading the cast

The cast of God's Dice
The cast of God's Dice
© Helen Maybanks

In a charmingly self-deprecating programme note for God's Dice, David Baddiel writes about his scientist father's opinion that artistic pursuits are "a waste of a brain". If this ambitious debut play is Baddiel Jr's response to his Dad's dismissal of his creative urges, while also weaving in a complex seam of scientific information that tips its hat to Baddiel Sr, then kudos are due for turning parental disapproval into a cracking theatrical gift to the rest of us.

The combination of dizzyingly ingenious mathematics, theatrical excitement, genuine human interest and thumping good jokes recalls early Stoppard, although the parade of short scenes betrays Baddiel's TV origins. One of the few flaws in James Grieve's finely acted production is the succession of clumsy, over-complicated set changes – never again do I need to see an actor pushing a trolley around in semi-darkness – and one hopes that these will be streamlined for the (hopefully inevitable) West End transfer.

The plot turns on a physics student, a devout Christian, coming up with a scientific formula that proves the existence of God, much to the confusion and admiration of her University professor (Alan Davies), whose own wife is a fêted atheist with bestselling books and a major media profile to her credit. It's probably not fair to disclose too much about the rest of the story except that it encompasses marital disharmony, religious fervour, the abuse of power, trial by social media, cultism, and the dinosaurs of academia left high and dry by the #MeToo movement. It's a rich, sinister brew, probably a little over-stuffed with ideas and occasionally veering into soap opera territory, but intelligent and eminently watchable throughout.

Alan Davies' rumpled, likeable persona is a superb fit for wry, unassuming academic Henry but he also convinces thoroughly when the mood darkens and the character's pain and frustration at playing second fiddle to his brilliant wife Virginia are laid bare. Opposite him, Alexandra Gilbreath brilliantly conveys the intellectual complacency of an essentially good woman who is innately convinced that she is always in the right, only to have the rug brutally pulled out from underneath her. She's magnificent.

There's lovely, understated work from Nitin Ganatra as the couple's longest standing friend, an 'old school' uni lecturer/lecher caught in so many different crossfires he's barely able to stand up straight.

Leila Mimmack cleverly charts student Edie's journey from awkward campus oddball to potent figure of female and religious empowerment. She's a fascinating, increasingly alarming character and Mimmack captures precisely her tricky blend of social ineptitude and ruthless manipulation, although the actress's tendency to swallow her words does mean that certain key lines get lost. Luckily, as the play hurtles towards its terrifying denouement Mimmack is mic-ed, and she's very compelling.

In the rather stronger second half, the plot takes a turn for the truly bizarre but the strength of Baddiel's writing is that at this stage you're sufficiently gripped and invested to go along with it. Until that point the authorial voice has been commendably ambiguous on the religious and moral stances represented in the script. In the TV interview scene that closes the first half, Virginia's coruscating take-down of the social media age ("we live in a post-truth world…if nothing is true, anything can be true") is, one suspects, the nearest we get to the real Baddiel coming through.

God's Dice is ultimately too wide-ranging and complex to be 100 per cent successful but it is wonderful to encounter new writing that isn't afraid to take on huge themes and refract them back through the prism of relatable human circumstances. He may have slightly scrambled mine, but Mr Baddiel definitely is not wasting his brain.