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A CurtainUp London London Review
On the Third Day

I don't have a crown of thorns but I do get crucifying headaches. I can walk on water but I can't swim . . .
---- Mike
On the Third Day
Paul Hilton as Mike and Maxine Peake as Claire
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
In 2005, Channel Four launched The Play's the Thing, a nationwide search for a new play, by a first-time playwright, to be produced in the West End. Theatre producer Sonia Friedman headed this quest, trawling through thousands of potential plays to find just one which could be a critical and commercial success. Finding it became far more of a struggle than imagined, and even the wining play went through workshops, edits, cuts and substantial intervention from the production/acting team before it was thought to be stage-worthy. There has been a plethora of similar reality television shows where an unknown but deserving talent is given an instant ticket to celebrity exposure. However, instead of the standard phone-in vote, the only way television audiences can participate in this show is to buy a seat for the production.

Kate Betts' On the Third Day was chosen, not because it was necessarily the best-written play, but because it was thought to fit in most with the demands of the West End with spectacular and populist content. Hoping to tap into the same sensibility which made The Da Vinci Code so sensationally lucrative, there is a neo-Biblical strain in this play.

The plot follows Claire (Maxine Peake) and her younger brother Robbie (Tom McKay), from their orphaned childhood into a dysfunctional adulthood. Loss, loneliness, incestuous desire, self-harm and estrangement all plague the two siblings. However, one day, Claire meets Mike (Paul Hilton), an environmental health officer, who also happens to claim that he is Jesus and we see his healing, if at times somewhat blundering, influence in the course of the play. There is some fairly witty exploitation of Mike's questionable Jesus identity, such as his blistered feet are anointed with Savlon and he describes his father as 'sort of consultant'.

In terms of staging, this production is pretty impressive Making use of video technology, Claire's job at the London Planetarium surrounds her with planets and stars. When her talk to the schoolchildren flounders, the universe seems to pause. For Robbie, whose career is to take people potholing in the Brecon Beacons, a limestone cavern is projected about him as he descends on a rope. This works in terms of visual effect but, as with much of this play, these interesting leads are not really explored or fulfilled. Brother and sister are obviously polarised, with one among the stars and the other deep underground, but this cosmic conceit is not taken any further.

The acting of the two main leads is outstanding. Maxine Peake is deservedly becoming known as one of Britain's best young actors and she carried off the fraught character of Claire very convincingly. Also excellent is the superb Paul Hilton as the scruffy, relaxed yet ultimately curative Mike. In a difficult role, Hilton is very relaxed, and plays it full of compassion yet also with endearing human flaws. In fact, these two outstanding actors made the script seem far more naturalistic than I suspect it really is.

This experiment is not a resounding triumph. Kate Betts' text had some intriguing ideas and a very good conception of character, but the play's promise is not realized and the second half felt increasingly messy. The production as a whole is very watchable, with excellent lead actors and a stunning design, but the writing threatened rather than established the evening's success.

Written by Kate Betts
Directed by Robert Delamere

Starring: Maxine Peake, Paul Hilton
With: Megan Ruddy/Daniella Wilson/Isabel Wroe Wright, Tom Silburn, Jordan Clarke/Patrick Harper/James Wilson, Tom McKay, Benjamin Wilkin
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Projections: Jan Driscoll
Production originally conceived by Steven Pimlott
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking at the New Ambassadors' Theatre Theatre to 2nd September 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 23rd June performance at the New Ambassadors' Theatre, West Street, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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