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Clean, Sharp Comic Work: Immaculate at the White Bear Theatre

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

Thundermaker’s Immaculate is a hilarious and clever look at the problem of approaching the supernatural in modern-day life. Is there still room for elevated notions of the soul, divinity, and the existential problem of free will in a world of flat-pack furniture and irritating mobile phone ringtones? Or will it turn out these questions are inescapable no matter how prosaic our surroundings? At the White Bear Theatre Club.

Immaculate opens with Mia taking a very evidently superfluous pregnancy test: she must be in denial about the glaring reality of her bulging stomach. Except we quickly learn she hasn’t had sex in well over nine months, since before splitting up with her ex Michael. There is some hemming and hawing about the curious biology of the situation before a man arrives. No, not a man: the Archangel (emphasis on the arch) Gabriel comes to inform Mia that she’s conceived immaculately and she is bearing the Lord’s child.

But wait! Just when she’s getting her head round the idea (I mean, why would God choose to impregnate a drinking, swearing, non-virgin, professional dominatrix who tells her mother she’s training to be a marine biologist? Is that how it works nowadays?) Satan arrives, also professing to be the father. One final claimant, smarmy old school chum Gary Goodman, crawls forth from the woodwork. When Mia’s best friend Rebecca shows up to explain that she’s been seeing Mia’s ex Michael, it begins to seem more like the trials of Job than the second coming. But if anyone is quick-witted and strong enough to face the pressure, it must be Mia.

Jessica Doherty’s Mia is the kind of woman I’d like to have coffee with: strong, funny, pragmatic, intelligent and with a real warmth. She carries the show with grace and passion. Mia’s one flaw appears to be falling for her ex-boyfriend Michael, played with a deliciously contemptible banker-in-training aesthetic by Matthew J Staton. Posh boys being idiots are always, always humorous, and Staton aproaches the role with a boyish fragility that adds sympathy.

Edward Law as the Archangel Gabriel shows us a character hampered by the fussy rules of the establishment where he works: an old-school PA-type fluffing the feathers of his own importance, caught between the desire to be loyal to his employer and to be his own man. Law and Barry Wilson as Lucifer have some excellent and touching moments of bickering intimate rivalry, with Gabriel undermining Lucifer’s evilness by calling him “Lucy” throughout.

Wilson’s Lucifer is in turns bullish, commading, whingeing, and full of wounded pathos. Finishing a monologue in which he outlines the ways in which poor old Lucy has been much-misunderstood (“The apple? It’s fruit! One of your five-a-day! Doctors recommend it!”), Wilson’s trembling lower lip earns a well-deserved round of applause as he flounces off.

Rebecca, Amy O’Dwyer’s character, is breathlessly apologetic for her irrisistable attraction to Michael. Rebecca’s role is to be the overshadowed second fiddle, the sidekick to Mia’s radiance, and O’Dwyer breathes piquant, full-bodied life into a part that could in lesser hands lack depth.

Finally, Phil Featherstone’s Gary Goodman is a comic masterpiece of sleazy underdog charm. He is the living embodiment of masculine insecurity: proudly showing off his car, his job, and his choice of drink, all of which are stunningly mediocre, before revealing under his alarming flamingo shirt a tender heart. Despite being the only character not allowed an internal monologue, Featherstone still manages to convey hidden depths of sincerity. His syncophantic vivacity is a joy to watch.

Oliver Lansley’s script is clever and multilayered, and the cast get their hooks into it with relish. There are some zinging one-liners, like Mia’s description of Michael’s nose-whistle when he sleeps as being “like a tiny elfin teapot lodged up there,” or describing Rebecca as “more irritating than eczema.” Lansley’s wonderful employment of lists, like Mia’s rapid-fire recitation of world religions when challenging Gabriel’s claim to be the messenger of the divine, is also a particular strong point.

References to classical themes are especially witty, with wry references to biblical passages, church dogma, and the problem of female heroines in romantic literature: they always seem to commit suicide. Are there no other options? Whatever happened to free will? To pro-choice? To consent?

The levity of the show is made all the more sharp by the serious questions about intimacy embedded within. Director Nick Reed’s skill is evident in the show’s pacing, with an ebb and flow of comedy and seriousness that keeps the emotional resonance of the play fresh throughout.

On this particular night the show starts 25 minutes late, and from comments made by regulars in the bar who are trying to watch the footie in peace while theatregoers jostle for position in the queue, I am led to believe this is pretty standard. But with its witty, prying, open, urgent and universal questions while remaining grounded in the picayune realities of petty rivalry, love triangles and chocolate Hobnobs, it is worth the wait.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 7 August 2013.