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A CurtainUp London London Review

"Other religions have holy warriors, suicide bombers, martyrs who throw down their life for their false faith."
— Benjamin
Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Miss White and Daniel O'Keefe as Benjamin (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Too many people are missing Martyr, Marius von Mayenburg's searching play and Ramin Gray's superb production for the Actors Touring Company because it is at a theatre for young people, London's The Unicorn. This play deals with a highly relevant issue in showing the radicalization of a teenager caught up in religious fanaticism. If I gave stars it would be top rated. Full of dark moments of laughter, this is the best way theatre can be used to get an involved debate going about issues which affect us all.

Benjamin (Daniel O'Keefe) doesn't want to go swimming in mixed classes. He thinks the girls are too provocative in their bikinis. At this school there is no dress code for swimming until Benjamin's protest comes to the attention of the headmaster (Mark Lockyer). The play opens with Ben trying to get his mother, single parent, Ingrid Sinclair (Flaminia Cinque) to write a note for him letting him off swimming. Ben has become a radicalized Christian. He quotes the Old Testament with ease at his mother. Her refrain is, "Is it drugs?" as she seeks to explain his extreme behaviour.

We meet the school staff, earnest biology teacher Erica White (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), her boyfriend the flakey games teacher Marcus Dixon (Brian Lonsdale) and the sexist headmaster Willy Belford (Mark Lockyer). This head teacher is not up to the job. His knee jerk reaction to Benjamin flinging himself onstage fully clothed into a swimming pool, is to make the girls wear swimming costumes of the kind that come up to the neck. This head has a sleazy line in conversation with innuendo and sexual allusion directed at the attractive Miss White.

Two of the pupils are shown with Ben. There is Lydia (Jessye Romeo) who thinks Ben's actions are designed to draw attention to himself so that she might show a sexual interest in him. She seriously tempts him. Then there is George (Farshid Rokey), a boy bullied by the others because he has one leg shorter than the other. George has no friends so he clings to Ben and counts himself as Ben's first disciple although George's subtext may not be exactly what Ben has in mind.

The sex education class is a hoot and I won't tell you any more and spoil the surprise except to say that it involves all the cast as the class and some very well endowed carrots.

Things reach crisis point when Miss White teaches Evolution instead of Creationism. Ben spouts hatred against gays and divorced people (adulterers) and wears a monkey mask to make the point that he is not descended from the apes. School Vicar, Dexter Menrath (Kriss Dosanjh) is asked to help and wants to recruit Ben to his church.

While Miss White studies the Bible to try to beat Ben at his own game, Ben turns to anti-semitism as his fundamentalism demonstrates bigotry and hatred. This anti-semitism is directed at Miss White and she tells him he has gone to far.

All of the 90 minutes are filled with attention getting ideas, often very funny. The fishes and mashed potato supper that Ben's mother is expected to stretch to three when Ben brings George home unexpectedly for supper. Think loaves and fishes. Ben's attempt to cure George's leg made me laugh and laugh.

The performances are great: from Daniel O'Keefe's scary Ben taking himself very, very seriously to Natalie Radmall-Quirke's concerned teacher and of course Mark Lockyer's seasoned comical sleaze bag head, "There are women who get cute when they're upset," he tells Miss White. I loved Farshid Rokey's tender and vulnerable George and Jessye Romeo's seductive Lydia.

No set changes interfere with the action, there is wonderful choral music between scenes and the penetrating school bell marks the start of scenes.

The play is recommended for the over 15s but adults need to see Martyr as well. Great play, superb direction and plenty to talk about. With Christianity substituting for Islamist fundamentalism , how much more topical could it be?

This is my idea of theatre heaven.

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Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Ramin Gray

Starring: Mark Lockyer, Daniel O'Keefe, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Farshid Rokey
With: Flaminia Cinque, Kriss Dosanjh, Brian Lonsdale, Jessye Romeo
Set Designer: Ramin Gray
Costume: Iona Kendrick
Lighting: David W Kidd
Sound: Alex Caplen
Running time: One hour 30 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7645 0560 to 10th October
Booking at various venues: North Wall Oxford October 13th and 14th, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh October 14th to 17th and Theatre Royal Plymouth 20th to 24th October
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 6th October 2015 performance at the Unicorn, 147 Tooley Street, Loindon SE1 2HZ (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)
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