After wading through the daft protests outside the Kiln Theatre, the newly refurbished, rechristened building is beautiful.
The auditorium feels wider and roomier, glisteningly new and up-to-date, but with original features from the Foresters’ Hall visible all over. And, best of all, it’s only two buttocks to a seat, rather than the bench-style cram that existed before.
It’s a shame though that the inaugural play, directed by artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, isn’t a stunner. Alexis Zegerman kicks up a lot of dust in a provocative, sometimes powerful show about religion, parenthood and how incredibly, arrogant and awful the middle classes can be. But when it settles, it’s not obvious what all that kicking was for.
Simone and Sam, Jewish but professedly atheist, start going to church in order to get their four-year-old into a nearby primary school. Their Christian friends Nick and Juliet disapprove – not least because their own daughter is also vying for a place there.
This is a world of catchment areas and Waitrose ready meals, embedded gender roles and mother-in-law jokes. We’re clearly supposed to loathe it. Then we have to watch these four hateful and unscrupulous characters scrambling over each other to grasp the moral high ground for more than two hours.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett is at her best when her character Simone is at her worst: kneeling in a garden, drunk, with a speech about why having children is awful; raging scornfully about lazy working-class people. Daniel Lapaine’s Sam is a good contrast – a stoner, still deeply immature. Claire Goose makes for a restrained Juliet, and there’s great work too from Daon Broni as her peacekeeping husband Nick.
The best thing is the way that, through Rubasingham’s careful direction and Zegerman’s script, there’s a real sense of the children’s presence, even though they’re never seen. Children will listen, Zegerman explains, and lines exchanged between parents in jest – particularly when it comes to race or religion – are absorbed and delivered back, warped and out of context.
Briefly Zegerman skirts close to showing why religion and faith can matter: it’s the stuff around it, the community and the pulling together. It becomes culture and habit rather than just belief, and Zegerman gently digs into ideas of syncretism and the ways it can and can’t work.
But it takes an hour before the debate gets remotely interesting and there is so much slowness, followed by sudden massive spikes in plot development and action.
Still, it’s a clever bit of programming: debates about heritage and legacy, and which side on any given argument is better at playing the victim. In that sense, and in this newly baptised theatre, through slow, and sometimes painful, accumulation the play eventually pays off.