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A CurtainUp London London Review

"An empty cathedral is like putting on a play day by day in a theatre without an audience. " — The Virger
Simon Russell Beale as the Dean and Paul Higgins as the Canon Chancellor (Photo: Johan Persson)
I have been very impressed by Steve Waters' plays as he tackles pertinent issues with plot, humour and great characterisation. Temple is probably the best play I've seen this year and stars the great Simon Russell Beale as the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral who is facing the anti capitalist protestors of Occupy London in 2011. Why isn't he a knight of the theatre?

The Occupy movement had started their protest outside the London Stock Exchange but had been moved on and landed up in the precincts of St Paul's, founded on this site in 604 AD, the City of London's foremost cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 1600s. Steve Waters' account is fictional but some of the real events, closures and resignations feature in his play.

The Occupy crowd were noisy with the incessant drumming of the hippie, New Age population, their tents an eyesore and there were difficulties for the public in accessing the cathedral via rubbish strewn paths and steps. Health and Safety stuck their oar in.

The essence of Waters' play is whether the church authorities should have backed the anti-capitalist protest or joined forces with the Corporation of London, the local government authority in evicting them. Which course of action would Jesus have chosen, Jesus the man who evicted the traders from the temple for bringing business into the Lord's house? Would he have endorsed this modern day anti-banking movement?

Simon Russell Beale as the Dean carries the weight of the decision to close the cathedral for the first time. Not even the damage done in the Blitz by the bombing of the German Luftwaffe closed St Paul's then. Paul Higgins plays the Canon Chancellor one of the more junior clergy who resigns because of the lack of church support for the occupation and uses social media to tweet about his resignation.

Malcolm Sinclair is the Bishop of London a wily politician cleric who sits on the ecclesiastical fence. We first meet the Dean with his temporary PA, Lizzie (a delightful performance from Rebecca Humphries), a quirky and animated young girl with an (almost) history degree.

Russell Beale plays a man of religion with a superb sense of irony and a talent for sarcastic humour. In the intimate Donmar space we see his every expression, such a joy as well as the richness of his most theatrical voice. Using pompous official language he will contrast this with his use of modern cliches and concepts, like "work life balance" delivered with a tone of derision. It is such a light and deft performance you cannot fail to be charmed by this actor. When an elderly woman Virger (Anna Calder Marshall) is abused by the protesters Simon Russell Beale describes this as "her being called an ugly word for a very private part of the female anatomy".

When the bishop hugs the dean we can see how uncomfortable the dean is with this physical display of support. He stiffens at the contact and remains frozen to the spot. There is a running joke with the choice of the clergy's ring tones for their mobiles. Again and again we laugh at this great script and fine acting and of course Howard Davies' direction.

Tim Hatley's impressive set had three full height sash windows with the architecture of Wren's St Paul's cupola in view. The meeting room in the Chapter House is where the dean will do battle with his conscience as he seeks guidance from God about what is the right thing to do.

Temple addresses the paradox of the meaning of Christianity where the church is a landowner and upholder of conventional power and in bed with the forces of capitalism. There is much to laugh at and debate in this excellent and original play. Book it now!

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Written by Steve Waters
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring : Simon Russell Beale, Paul Higgins, Malcolm Sinclair, Rebecca Humphries, Anna Calder-Marshall, Shereen Martin
Choristers: Richard Griffiths, Luca Latchman, Eigo Masumoto, James Murray, Eskandar Rashidian, Lucas Watson
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Sound: Mike Walker
Running time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Box Office 0844 871 7624
Booking to 25th July 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th May 2015 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 4LD (Tube: Covent Garden)
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