Review

The Steward of Christendom

Trying hard not to sound sentimental, as this production ended I had tears running down my cheeks. Any of the critical remarks I make are my opinion as to what could have made it just that bit better. I thought some of the performances by far exceeded some of the professional theatre I have seen. Cathy Mulroney's direction formed very believable relationships, which is the most important facet of any production. This, in my eyes, is the sign of a good director.

The Irish accents were faultless. Thomas's long johns were deliciously dirty and you could almost see where he had spilt his stew. The sheets looked just that little bit too clean though!

The set was suitably bleak but I found myself wondering why there was a clock and candlesticks in the asylum room until I realised that they were meant to be two separate rooms. It took a while for the penny to drop. This is my main criticism. At times the conventions were a bit muddy and needed to be more firmly established for them to be useful. This would have allowed me to, and then my imagination would have had free rein.

When the daughters came on the energy levels soared

To explore this further, personally the way an actor enters the stage is of vital importance. As he or she walks on they bring with them energy and purpose that connects with the audience. In this play the entrances were either 'real' or 'imagined'. When characters were coming on from the side they were mostly 'imagined' (apart from Matt when he was painting and it took me a while to realise he was 'real'). I would have liked the 'imagined' characters' entrances done in a less naturalistic way giving it a more dreamlike quality thus enabling us to move imaginatively between truth and fantasy. There could have been more use of atmospheric lighting and music. The actors were hampered by lack of space to enter and this was furthered hindered at times by the table which looked slightly awkward.

Mrs O'Dea, played by Jackie Lawn (I loved her stockings!), brought a degree of humanity to the asylum and showed her concern for Thomas in a very poignant way especially when he had been beaten. She handled measuring him for his suit very naturalistically so I wondered why she didn't do his inside leg! Perhaps Mrs O'Dea's good catholic upbringing prevented it!

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David Senton and Andy Kirtley

Smith made a fine first entrance. It was a difficult role as he had to switch between being the bully that beat Thomas and the kind man that came back from the party to clean him up and read Willie's letter. I thought Andy Kirtley achieved this very well although perhaps his strength lay in his gentler moments and I would have liked to see him be more vicious when he had the opportunity. It was a wonderful moment when he came in dressed as a cowboy.

When the daughters came on the energy level soared. Thomas described Dolly's birth and his love for her in a speech, which David Senton did beautifully. When Dolly, played by Julia Ryan, ran on suddenly looking very young and fresh faced it was clear why he loved her. Julia and David's father/daughter relationship was very convincing. David gave the audience an insight into his pain at the news of her departure and how he wanted to spare her his feelings and cover them up. I love it when actors manage to show an audience the complexity and conflicts of relationships truthfully in a little snap shot with just a look or a turn of the head. David managed that.

Maud played by Ros Saint-Clare made me smile with her 'headaches' and her excitement at meeting Matt. I was sorry not to see her so much in the second half. Ros had given a genuine performance and it left a memory of her as a girl that carried over into the second half, so that in her absence the descriptions of her being unwell were doubly sad.

a strong, forceful performance

Bill Duerden as Willie, Thomas's son had a crucial part to play. He only came to Thomas in his dreams as he had died in the war. Bill had a difficult job but he played it well and handled himself sympathetically and believably especially when he lay down on the bed with his Father right at the very end of the play.

Stuart Handysides brought good contrast and movement to his character, Matt, from act to act. Initially, as he was courting Maud, he was very young and keen and eager to please but he changed to a brooding disillusionment in the second half.

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Louise Howes (left)

Louise Howes portrayed Annie with a real depth of passion. I felt that Louise gave the character many levels, we could see her desire to be beautiful and to be loved hidden underneath a dour crippled body. Her bitterness at her life was a real driving force but for all this it never managed to lose my empathy and compassion. Louise gave a look when her father called her the wrong name that was a real concentrated insight into her feelings. This was another moment when an actor shows their soul with just a look. I thought this a strong, forceful performance.

As for David Senton's portrayal of Thomas, well, I have one criticism and I will get it out of the way as quickly as possible. I saw a lot of his strength of character as a man and as a Father. That was done beautifully. But the strength of the senility when he begged Annie to kill him could have been more prevalent during the whole play. I wanted more senility, more 'cantankorousness', not just an old man. I could imagine sitting in the corner minding his own business at family gatherings. I wanted to see more of the three-year-old child in the old man, a bit more madness, more selfishness juxtaposed with Thomas's lucid moments. I do hope David will take this criticism because it is only because it was such a fine performance that I am able to put on a critical head and find a flaw. I loved his work. There were moments of great subtlety and moments of pure bursting emotion.

David delivered Thomas's last speech with such commitment that it moved me to tears

For me, the play was trying to address how parental love gets turned around when the parent becomes the needy one. It was very moving that Thomas seemed, on the surface, to love Annie least of all. She was the one that cared for him at home when he was old and she was the one who visited him in the asylum. I loved Annie's speech about wanting a child. You felt that she would have loved it with all her heart. Perhaps, in the end, his love did fall with her, as she was the daughter he was most honest with, even begging her to put him out of his misery. However the play ended with Thomas imagining lying down in bed with his dead son. Where was the justice in that after Annie's long, real struggle to love and care for her Father?

Thomas's last speech described how when he was a boy his dog turned sheep-killer, leaving blood on the snow. As any child brought up on a farm would know the dog must be destroyed. But he loved this dog and ran away and hid. When he was found his Father spared the dog out of love for his son. Love for a child is or should be unconditional. Love for a parent, maybe, is different. How do parents love children and how should they love back? I don't know the answer but The Steward of Christendom went a long way to exploring that.

David delivered Thomas's last speech with such commitment that it moved me to tears. He seemed to find his character truly in that moment, his physicality freed up, his voice soared and I no longer felt as though I was watching a performance. I felt he was really living it. For me that is the finest accolade an actor can achieve.

Laura Eddy was a professional actress for several years. She now runs a drama company in partnership with a therapist. They combine techniques to explore social issues, currently working with the police and prison service on the issue of domestic violence. She has appeared in several productions at the Barn Theatre.


Review by Laura Eddy. Photographs by Steve Beeston