God in Ruins
Soho Theatre Winter 2007-2008
This new play by Anthony Neilson will either annoy the heck out of you or grow on you, or perhaps both.
I found myself alternately exasperated and intrigued. It is a very imperfect and self-indulgent work, but the flawed work of a real writer, and that can be more interesting than the limited success of an uninspired hack.
Commissioned and committed to by the Royal Shakespeare Company before it was actually written, forcing a tight schedule on the author-director, the play too often has a slipshod make-do feel about it, while simultaneously congratulating itself for pulling the challenge off at all, with a what-a-clever-boy-am-I smugness.
But it is actually very clever at times, and it does somehow stumble its way to where it wanted to go, so there is a lot to admire.
Neilson seems to have had two creative impulses - to write an ironic follow-up to Dickens' Christmas Carol, and to explore the sad modern fact that Christmas can be the worst time of year for those who are alone.
Perhaps with more time he would have unified these ideas, but here he can only jump back and forth between them.
The play changes subjects, characters, themes, tones and even levels of reality every few minutes, almost like a Monty Python script that writes a sketch into a corner and then, rather than finding a punchline or a way out, just jumps to the next.
We start in Dickens, three years after Scrooge's conversion, when poor Bob Cratchit has to explain to the old man that his relentless jollity has become overbearing and he is not invited to Christmas dinner this year.
That's a funny and even thought-provoking idea, but it is instantly dropped as we jump to a modern Lonely Guy on Christmas Eve, estranged from his wife and daughter and trying to explain himself to the pizza delivery man.
Over the next 90 minutes we'll meet children coping with the death of Santa, a dead Iraqi war veteran, a substance-abuse encounter group, a bit of cybersex, the ghost of the Lonely Guy's father, and Scrooge again, who takes the guy on a quest to find his daughter.
I've left out the lights-up breaking of the fourth wall, the violent heckler in the audience and the depiction of a cyber-chatroom, but you get the idea.
Take any five-minute segment, almost at random, and you have the core of a potentially involving reality, but no sooner do we begin to get involved than the rules change and we're someplace else relating to someone else in a theatrically different way, with loose ends from all the previous sequences accumulating in our minds.
You can see why it's frustrating and alienating, but I reiterate that each of those five or ten minute segments is inventive, well-written, frequently touching and as frequently witty. And yes, the play does eventually say what it wants to say about Christmas loneliness and the need for connection.
You just need to have a lot of patience and resilience to get there.
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Review of God In Ruins - Soho Theatre 2007