Botticelli’s Angels, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

The last time I went to the Write Now Festival at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, I saw a marvellous stage reading for a play called The Magic Hour and I’ve been keeping an eye on the theatre’s creative writing output ever since. What caught my eye in the ads for the latest Write Now Festival was a play by Gemma Mills McGrath called Botticelli’s Angels. This was also a staged reading and I'm happy to say it didn’t disappoint.

Dealing with the sensitive subject of adults who have experienced abuse from RC clergy in the past, Botticelli’s Angels centres on Johnny and Frank, two brothers from Belfast who are now living in England. Of the brothers, Johnny is the most happy-go-lucky and the younger of the two. What with his penchant for magic tricks and playfulness, Johnny finds it hard to knuckle down to the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

Frank, on the other hand, has the weight of the world on his shoulders and is annoyed with Johnny for not going to a job interview as he should have done. However, he has more pressing things on his mind when Ursula, an outreach worker turns up his doorstep to discuss the brothers’ experience – a pre-requisite to them being paid compensation. They bond over their love of fine art (hence the name of the play) and we see that Ursula is no stranger to psychological pain herself. However, it is soon apparent that a lot of what she has to say is pre-scripted, talking about the stages of grief with little emotional investiture. Not surprisingly, Frank reaches the end of his tether.

When the play revealed its twist, it had a sense of closure and felt right. As the lights dimmed, I was surprised to hear there was going to be interval. “What else is there to say?,” I thought. “How could the story be improved?” I needn’t have worried. What came next made perfect sense in terms of how each character developed and the story as a whole.

Harling’s performance in the second act contrasted starkly with Ursula’s demeanour earlier. Instead of being positive and self-assured, we sense that Ursula is on edge. From the moment we see her at the self-service checkout till on Christmas Eve, we can tell she has lost the inner serenity she once had. When Frank meets her by chance and finds out her husband has recently died, he takes it upon himself to help her through this dark period, just as she tried to help him. However it’s a case of the blind leading the blind as some ghosts aren’t truly laid to rest...

Jim Conway as Frank is the beating heart of the play, wearing his pain and exasperation for all to see. His raw, truthful performance is complemented by Dylan Kennedy’s Johnny whose levity and sardonic nature keeps Frank in check.

Of course the contributions by Laura Harling and Matthew Parker (who also work together under the artistic venture of First Draft Theatre) cannot be overstated.  Harling’s emotional journey as Ursula – from up-beat but inexperienced counsellor to shaken-to-the-core widow – is arresting, while Parker’s direction grounds the story, despite the strong emotions involved. All of this would be nothing without McGrath’s inspired writing that fleshes out believable characters and mines the dramatic wealth from coming to terms with the past.

Botticelli’s Angels had a scratch performance at the Jack Studio Theatre three years ago when it was known as Mercy & Redemption. Here’s to hoping that the play will soon be shown as a full-blown production. It certainly deserves to be seen by as big an audience as possible.

© Michael Davis 2014

CAST: Jim Conway, Laura Harling, Dylan Kennedy


Written by Gemma Mills McGrath

Directed by Matthew Parker

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