Ohio-born Pastor O’Hare (Michael Condron) is now preaching daily in a tent mission erected on the Simpson family farm in rural Northern Ireland. Farmer Stanley (Charlie Bonner) has set down his pitchfork and swapped the muck of the cattle to pick up a ‘Job complex’ and a new clean living role assisting the preacher. His wheel-chair bound mother (Roma Tomelty) – steered around by a hilarious and underused Christina Nelson – is the only other member of the family to have signed the pledge form.
Condron looks the part as a loud-mouthed, fast talking religious showman with more charisma than theology. While he lacks the deviousness of a serial charlatan, he’s clearly in comic heaven with the physical aspects of his part.
Bonner captures the essence of a County Down unionist farmer in his portrayal of Stan. In fact he has more than a passing visual resemblance for an independent councillor in that neck of the woods. The hold that O’Hare has over Stan’s life and chattels reminds me of the story of a real life Presbyterian elder in Crossgar who fell under the spell of Ian Paisley during the founding of the Free Presbyterian Church and sacrificed much before being discarded and disillusioned.
“I smell a fox on my land, a great big sleekit one.”
The fourth wall is raised and lowered as the theatre audience switches between spying on the Simpson kitchen soap opera and sitting under canvass lapping up the platitudes of the spiritual snake oil salesman who moves into the family home, and spreads his vegetarianism as fervently as his good news.
For all the talk about depravity, tabernacles and looking for signs, what could have been an acerbic deconstruction of false religion and piety instead becomes a mushy ratatouille of chopped up laughs, mixed with isolated farce and some overcooked acting.
There are plenty of giggles and great oneliners, but the second half fails to pick up the pace and deliver the sharp denouement that the concept deserves. Chekhov’s gun fails to be fired and despite the 50:50 cast, director Mick Gordon’s strongest scenes take place on an all male stage with the pastor, the farmer, his son and his brother. The inevitable seduction scene is more venus flytrap than honey trap.
When Alan McKee’s Sydney asks – cross in hand – about the kind of eejit who “sacrifice himself for a pile of heathen”, it could have been a jaw dropping moment of theatre. Instead the audience barely blinked.
The stakes rise but there’s little sense of anxiety in the audience. By the end, the plot has been painted into a corner and the play’s climax relies too heavily on a minor character to tie up the loose ends and dilutes the ‘twist’ with exposition about the nature of theatre, storytelling and religion. (Potentially this pays homage to Molière’s Tartuffe from which Sinners is loosely adapted or inspired.)
Too much of the dialogue is shouted with a hint of screech. A lot of fat could be trimmed from the script by cutting at least four of the cast of ten. At times, the script clumsily turns Tania into a on-stage director, handing out roles and ‘you do this, you do that’ direction to the remaining cast.
While not offering a fulsome redemption, there are some sweet and tasty mouthfuls along the way. The last supper tableau is well staged. The costumed stage hand is a neat touch (and should be listed in the programme as the eleventh member of the cast). The virtual choir adds another layer of humour with increasingly off-the-wall videography emphasising the size and prosperity of the mission. And it’s a sign of the times when the “turn your mobile off” message is now built into a playwright’s script: last night’s threat of “eternal damnation” seemed to do the trick.
Ultimately, Sinners tells the story of false religion and misplaced fervour, but settles for cheaper comedy over biting satire as the fake good news is exposed.
The Lyric Theatre tent mission is open and welcoming Sinners through its wide tent door until 3 June.