This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
In 1842, George Holyoake, a lowly teacher and a committed Socialist, became the last person to stand trial in England for Blasphemy. His suggestion, in a speech made in Cheltenham, that God should be treated “as the Government treated subalterns by placing Him upon half pay” offended society of the day and led to demands for retribution. John Osborne wrote this short play after he had sealed his reputation for giving voice to antiestablishment views and its subject suits him well. It was first performed on television in 1960, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts. This is the first time that it has been seen on a London stage. Prosecutions for Blasphemy may have stopped by 1960, but Osborne clearly saw the relevance of the Holyoake case to his own era, when society still demanded conformity. He could not have foreseen the continuing relevance 56 years on. The challenge to keep a reasonable balance between protection of deeply held faith from mockery or derision and maintenance of the right to freedom of speech is ongoing. Director Jimmy Walters’ revival is given added weight by reflections on this conundrum in a modern context, but Osborne’s secondary message may have been that Holyoake’s real offence was not Blasphemy at all, but being a Socialist. This is essentially a static, old-fashioned piece, but Walters’ imaginative direction makes it theatrical and up-to-date. Swirling movement around Holyoake shows us a little man caught up alone in a Kafkaesque nightmare and traverse staging makes the audience feel like jurors in the court room scenes. Philip Lindley’s clever designs of moveable sections that adapt readily to become a residence, a meeting hall, a court and a prison, ensure that scene changes do not interfere with the flow of the production. Jamie Muscato is superb as Holyoake, stooping and vulnerable, yet showing steely defiance. He is afflicted by a speech impediment, but, when mounting his impassioned defence, he stands upright to become articulate and fluent. Caroline Moroney is a sorrowful figure as Holyoake’s suffering, unforgiving wife and four actors – Ralph Birtwell, Doron Davidson, Edmund Digby-Jones and Richard Shanks – also impress, sharing 17 minor roles. Perhaps constrained by a television time slot, Osborne stays focussed narrowly on the social and ethical issues, making few attempts to flesh out the characters or to expand the drama. Although this means that he gives us a play that is somewhat dry and not completely satisfying, we still get a gripping hour that provides a great deal of food for thought.
Performance date: 23 May 2016
Image: Samuel Taylor