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A Turbulent Priest

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Based on the true story of the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, A Turbulent Priest follows the extraordinary story of the unlikely friendship and turmoil between Thomas and King Henry II. Featuring multiple songs, plenty of jokes and numerous characters the show commemorates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s death.

This show tours Churches up and down the country, and last night was the turn of Christ Church in Stone, Staffordshire. Non-conventional theatre venues always make for a different and exciting theatre experience, and there is something really lovely about watching a show beneath the stained glass windows and arching beams of a Church.

Two actors; Freya Storch and Johnny Fairclough superbly play every single character flitting between the key and cameo roles of Henry II, Thomas Becket, Archbishop Theobald, John of Salisbury, Roger York, St George and St Thomas the Apostle.

Beautiful angelic singing fills the church between each scene, a small stage is set up at the front of the Church with the altar providing the perfect backdrop and a professional lighting rig completes the slick set up.

Freya Storch plays Thomas Becket, St George and Roger of York – her varying and comical portrayal of each different character is testament to her training at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and various professional theatre credits. She transitions seamlessly into each male role – a decision made by the writer/director quite purposefully as he was keen that Thomas Becket be played by a woman. Partly to compliment the strong male presence in Henry II but also as a representation of the Church, deemed to be female – the bride of Christ.

Johnny Fairclough is Henry II, Archbishop Theobald, John of Salisbury and St Thomas The Apostle, another professional performer who presents us with multiple accents and plenty of comedy moments embedded within his manifold character roles. To keep a two-hander fresh for the audience with each new scene is a challenge, but the multi-rolling from both of these performers is really impressive and totally clear to the audience.

Each new character the audience was introduced to came with their own slight costume change to clearly differentiate them. However a lovely modern twist (I think of Freya’s red converse) was a hint to the fringe, tongue-in-cheek, minimal style of the writing and the performance that made it edgy and relevant despite its historical content.

Minimal props and set allowed the characters to shine through and moments of audience interaction and breaking of the fourth wall permeated a dialogue heavy and historical show. The fun musical numbers written and directed by James Sherwood also broke up the story, the rap between Henry II and Thomas Becket in the second half being one of the particular highlights.

Writer and Director James Cary is an award-winning sitcom writer for BBC TV and Radio, having worked on the first two series of Miranda and co-written Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop for BBC Radio 2. This particular style of comedy shines through in the writing and especially in the characterisation of some of Freya Storch’s roles.

According to the programme notes Cary has always been interested in who was ultimately responsible for Becket’s unfortunate death, and raises many questions about what the place of the Church is in our society. Should the State have the final say over what is right and wrong, should the Church speak out, and are Christians prepared to face the ramifications of that stand like Thomas was?

The first half was longer than the second, and I wonder if a slight re-jig might keep the audience really engaged with all of the intricate storytelling presented in such a unique way.

In this time of turbulence in our own politics, one might translate the issues of 850 years ago to today, and wonder who really should have the final say over what is right and wrong.

The show continues to tour into 2020, tour locations and ticket information can be found here