On The Third Day, New Ambassadors Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

On the first day, God made the light and the dark, and saw that it was good. On the second day, a camera crew turned up at God’s house. ‘What’s going on here?’ said God. ‘And who’s that guy?’ ‘Him?’ said the producer, ‘That’s Graham. He’s from Kent. We’re here to film a reality show called “Can You Make The Light And The Dark Better Than God?” It’s reality, but – you know – highbrow.’

For avoidance of all doubt, that’s not the play. That’s my silly little joke. On The Third Day is, of course, the winning play from Channel 4’s theatrical reality TV show The Play’s The Thing. I was sent to see this play because Culture Wars knows that I am simple-minded, that I appreciate the lowbrow, and that I love tacky gimmicks and TV tie-ins. I had some time free before the show and I ate hamburgers! From Burger King! I couldn’t be more suited to watch this play! I entered the theatre expecting (hoping! praying!) for the theatrical equivalent of Steve Brookstein! Or Gareth Gates!

Anyway, here’s the plot of the actual play. Claire is a presenter at Greenwich Planetarium, who goes to a bar one night and brings back Mike, with whom she wants to lose her virginity. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Jesus. Whoops! I don’t think He’s putting out on the first date! Mike’s presence forces her to confront the death of her parents, her troubled relationship with her brother, and, like, whether the Jesus dude is crazy or not.

It’s important to get this out of the way: the play is not a disaster. (Oh, you can smell the disappointment from the bitchy elements of the audience! It’s almost worth going just for that.) It’s a mess, but it’s not a disaster. The main problem with On The Third Day is – predictably – the immaturity of the playwright. Betts is wildly ambitious in the way first-time playwrights can be, chucking ideas at the stage without ever knowing quite how to make them pay off. Divinity, delusion, insanity, self-harm, incest, guilt, suicide, ghost rape, potholing, Elvis – it’s a busy, restless piece which never achieves the cohesion it needs.

The first half almost – almost! – works, mainly because it is built around the relationship of the central characters, Claire and Mike. Maxine Peake gives a very nice performance of the timid side of Claire, drunkenly attempting to seduce Mike (Paul Hilton) after dragging him home from a bar. Kate Betts writes a nice line in snappy dialogue, which Peake and Hilton have fun with. In particular, Betts is a fan of coy one-liners alluding to Mike’s past life as Jesus. There’s a lot of these. In fact, you could probably play ‘Jesus Joke Bingo’, just by sitting there with a copy of the New Testament and ticking them off as they came out. When Mike referred to some overcooked fish being ‘a burnt offering’, I think I got my full house.

The flashbacks to Claire and her brother Robbie as children interested me much less than the present day, domestic business. I don’t think I need to tell you, oh intelligent reader, that there are subtler ways to impart exposition than the flashback. One episode of The Play’s The Thing I saw involved the playwright Stephen Jeffreys telling the finalist writers about the three unities of time, place and action. I wish he’d pressed his case a little more firmly, as the second half takes much of the nice domestic stuff that I liked a lot and trashes it, in favour of massive caves, food fights, singing, and some more rape. It’s scrappy stuff, and unsatisfying. Like Russell T Davies’ 2003 ITV drama The Second Coming, Betts has the problem that she has brought Jesus into a modern world and now doesn’t know what she’s going to do with him.

Davies had the temerity to kill off Our Lord (how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice, right?), but Betts opts for that old classic: he just wanders off. Probably to Heaven. The performers find it difficult to attain the dramatic peaks that the histrionics in the text demand, because of dizzying leaps in the text from high drama to subtle comedy and back. In the climactic restaurant scene there’s some horrible stage direction, and the mere presence of Elvis at the dinner table turns it into exactly the sort of cheaply absurd play that I imagine producer Sonia Friedman set out to avoid. Revelations happen at a pace that suggests the characters are eager to get to the end of the play. How meta-theatrical! It’s such a shame. The occasional glimmers of promise in the first half are all squandered.

Thematically, there’s no real sense that Betts is engaging with her subject matter. She’s assembling An Important And Symbolic Play from a list of variables; writing not what she feels, but what she thinks theatre is. I have no idea what Betts actually thinks about God, or Jesus, or even Christianity. I have no idea what she wants us to think about these things. In fact, I think the moral of the story, to paraphrase Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, is ‘Be Excellent To Each Other’. The other strands of the story are somehow even less clearly defined. Claire’s self-harm is gratuitous and a cheap device to show that she is, like, really upset. Claire’s brother Robbie is so unsympathetic, I was left hoping Jesus committed murder by snipping his potholing ropes with scissors, which would have been out-of-character for Christ to say the least.

Theatrically, we get vaulting ambition. Throughout the series of The Play’s The Thing, Sonia Friedman fretted that the final chosen play wouldn’t be big enough for the West End. She disparaged plays for only being suitable for the Royal Court and encouraged her writers to think boldly to escape the deadly trap of… shudder as you say it… fringe theatre. The net result is a play punching above its weight. The design of the play is all huge projections and sofas floating onto stage mysteriously pushed by no-one; the sound design is big whooshy noises and Holst; and the script is more, more, more! It’s a lie, anyway, this notion that the West End can only cope with big plays. The last play I saw on the stage of the New Ambassadors was Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, and that’s just three blokes chained to radiators.

It just saddens me. Given a proper dramaturgical going-over, this would probably be quite a good play, if shorn of flashbacks and given a tighter, claustrophobic focus. Because of the time constraints of the programme, the play has been rushed onto a stage, publicly, painfully, and I don’t believe it’s ready. There are glaring things in the play that could have been sorted out really easily by a skilled dramaturg – like Young Claire having a bossy character that diametrically opposes her timid older counterpart. The characters need a lot of psychological fleshing-out, and factual definition – the writer is dealing with huge, complicated human issues, and has no real idea of how to make a subject like incest both dramatically viable and psychologically ‘real’.

The point of this project was to offer someone a chance to put their play on in the West End, but the script selection process used by theatres and literary agents is there for a purpose. It guarantees a play is stage-worthy by the time a paying audience sees it. The Play’s The Thing promised support for a new writer, but it has actually given the writer less support, and placed more pressure on her to make something extraordinary. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize.

I really hope Kate Betts gets another play put on soon, and is not crushed by this ludicrous, unreal pressure upon her as a first-time writer. As it is, the whole project seems like an immense effort for scant reward. Too silly to be appreciated by sniffy regular theatregoers, with too much incest for people who watched The Play’s The Thing while waiting for Big Brother to come on, On The Third Day is a bit of a curio; a play that manages to miss every target market. This play isn’t the thing – it’s not good, but it’s not a pleasingly-trashy disaster, and it’s all a bit upsetting, really.