Church provides dramatic setting for this Canterbury tale

BELLA BARTOCK reviews a formidable and impressive production from one of the borough’s oldest amateur dramatic societies

St John’s Dramatic Society show their great depth of talent with their production of Jean Anouith’s Becket, being performed at the church in Selsdon tonight and tomorrow evening.

Peter O'Toole and, right, Richard Burton. Neither was available for the Selsdon production of Becket

Peter O’Toole and, right, Richard Burton. Neither was available for the Selsdon production of Becket

The Frenchman’s play formed the basis for the 1964 film that paired Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton as Henry II and his turbulent priest, Thomas Becket.

The Society celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and this is just one of three plays to come in 2016 from the company. A thriller, Summer End, is due in May and a comedy in November. The range of plays is a testament to the versatility of this group of players, numbering 23 in this production.

Peter Bramwell as Becket and Hugh Leadon as Henry are truly powerful in the way that they carry off the medieval conflict between state and church, and the personalities of the two men. This three-hour performance is a tour de force for the duo and Croydon should be proud that it can host such drama of gravitas.

After an initial session on last night’s first night of rather rushed dialogue, distracted by what might or might not have been a wardrobe malfunction when dressing the king, Bramwell was commanding as Becket. His personal physique towering over Leadon was used well to play up the king’s sometime dependency on his friend and aide, Becket.

Bramwell’s calm and control added to the pathos of the final scene of slaughter and to the historical myth of martyr Becket reconciled to his fate.

The setting of this play in the church – the plays are normally held in the next door church hall – comes to its fullest effect as the audience hear the four barons behind the auditorium, banging on the doors to seek entry. The lighting in the darkened nave was used to good effect, especially for the two characters’ last meet upon a freezing night on the high plain of La Ferte Bernard.

Staging Becket in St John's provides a fitting setting

Staging Becket in St John’s provides a fitting setting

The early English style arch in St John’s that frames the performance is apposite for Anouith’s historically inaccurate account of a conflict between a Saxon Becket and his Norman king. Becket’s martyrdom always seemed misplaced in any case, with the historical reality of his being a reactionary block to a reforming secular state. Becket opposed The Constitutions of Clarendon that aimed to dismantle ridiculous exemptions for the priesthood from the king’s justice.

It is unfortunate that the use of the church coincides with scaffolding work at the back of the chancel. This work delays timely actor exits and is especially awkward for a tall, mitre-topped Bramwell.

The whole show, though, is a labour of love as it returns to the church which was used for a Becket performance in 1970.

The Society is staging this run as a tribute and memorial for Tony Rapps, who was an active and leading member for 55 years.

The powerful play is directed by his widow Caryl Rapps. Stage director Brian Miller can recall vividly the 1970 production. The really moving Gwendolen’s song was written by Andy Rapps. The music was lovingly written, and appropriate in its longing sadness.

Leadon is just excellent in playing a troubled king, bringing out the vacillation and uncertainties of the king, while his love for Becket, which is seen by his mother as neither healthy nor manly, drives him to distraction.

Bramwell convinces in his transformation from a trusted statesman concerned for honour in the practices of the court to a prelate concerned for the honour of God.

BecketThe clergy are top-class in their insouciance. Even the looks on the faces of Andy Holton, John Randoll, Ron White and Fraser MacDonald communicated much of the knowing and worldly wise weariness of the medieval church, all the way to the back of this large auditorium. Brian Holdom’s pastiche performance as the Pope with a Bronx Italian accent and Godfather-style mannerisms seemed a ridiculous prochronism.

Hilary Richardson led the four rollicking barons well in a confident performance. Thomas Lilley was well-judged in playing young men full of resentment. Peter Whittle was unsurprisingly self-assured as King Louis.

All these parts reviewed are male ones. Modern audiences may well find the appalling treatment of women in the play a concern. Thank goodness the next play in the season will provide some good female roles.

This magnus opus for the society, with its intense drama, is worth the discomfort of three hours sitting in a church with no drinks at the interval, hot or cold. The programme explains, “We apologise that hot drinks will not be available as we do not have enough power to run the lighting and heat the water.”

A worthy sacrifice in the name of art in a production that should be seen by all.

  • Performances begin at 8pm. Take a flask. Tickets are £8 (£7 for concessions). Call 020 8651 1326 to book or for more details.

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