Mild-mannered vicar Stella (Grace Edwards) is newly appointed at All Saints in Peckham to improve the community as well as the church roof. Aside from drug dealers and down-and-outs, she must also contend with administrator Marty (Nicola Sanderson), who regularly deviates from the planned scripture reading to share the apocalyptic passages of Revelation, and Trissia (Michelle Greenidge), who is about to be deported to her home country of Sierra Leone.
In a bold move, Stella puts legality aside to save her loyal parishioner: find Trissia someone to marry. In steps a Polish handyman looking for work, and Stella finds a way to save both Trissia and the church roof. Trissia's new husband shows his entrepreneurial skills and before she realises, Stella's church has a host of marriage bookings and a healthy income for repair bills. With a series of twists and turns, Stella must square things with both the law and the Lord before the arrival of the police and the Bishop.
Based on real events, this is a lovely, heart-warming comedy that draws on the multi-cultural diversity of its inhabitants and explores what happens when people from different backgrounds come together over a common cause. The comedy is well observed: a recurring joke is the comparison of Marty, a female version of Boycie from Only Fools and Horses, sternly reciting the hymns as Trissia (whom she calls "Tricia") sways, shakes and passionately harmonises with the music in her colourful attire. Sanderson is a tour de force, responsible for much of the laughter as the pompous Marty. Like many of the characters, Marty is larger than life but, despite the farcical situation, doesn't go beyond believable. Greenidge is an assertive presence with a vulnerable side, and clearly has made the right career choice following her work in local government.
The casting overall is excellent, and each character has been clearly crafted physically and vocally. There is some particularly good work by Peter Clements and Jessica Kennedy, who play multiple roles including the supernatural Devil and Angel that Stella sees visions of as they fight for the rule of the church. Both Clements and Christopher Lane deliver convincing eastern European language and accents without appearing ridiculous or generic. Edwards ties everything together in an earnest performance as a vicar who eventually finds her voice amid the chaos to stand up and do the right thing.
My main criticism of this play is how much it attempts to do. The basic story of a vicar trying to balance morality and legality in a diverse and unfamiliar parish may have been enough, but Nicola Baldwin's script goes much further. I felt there was too much focus on each character's background and the tragedy of their stories, which muddied the direction of the story. Kennedy's other character "Little Boy" reveals that she posed as a boy to protect herself after being abandoned by her mother and left homeless. Strong and silent Bucholz (Clements) turns out to be a people trafficker who just wanted to look after his grandmother, and even Stella is revealed to have previously suffered a nervous breakdown. It's not that these stories lack interest, but that they contain such gravity that they deserve more time to be explored than is available within the time frame of the play.
As such, some parts felt glossed over, or included lines of rushed exposition just to fit everything in. On top of this, there are authorial comments about religion, society and the pitfalls of Southwark council loans schemes. At two and a half hours, I left with the feeling it could have been trimmed quite a bit.
However, I also left with a big grin and a warm sense of satisfaction at a story that captured and celebrated the meaning of community and, from the standing ovation by those behind me, I wasn't alone.
The Last Refuge133 Rye Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom SE15 3SN
Tue-Sat: 8pm, Sun: 4pm