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| 7 August 2014 | Reply

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth
Written by Roger Crane, Directed by Jonathan Church
Starring David Suchet, Sam Parks, Philip Craig, David Ferry, Richard O’Callaghan, Nigel Bennett, Stuart Milligan, Sheila Ferris
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar


The Last Confession
The Vatican, like any government, is beset by corruption, lobbying and intrigue, and these machinations were set into overdrive following the suspicious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 after just 33 days in office.

Lawyer-turned-playwright Roger Crane caused a sensation when this – his first play – had a successful run on the West End in London, unheard of for a first-time playwright.

The Last Confession – bolstered by the star power of David Suchet, who you will know from many outings as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – details one version of these turbulent times with a tense and dramatic flourish, boosted always by superb acting by Suchet and his company.

Suchet’s Archbishop Benelli sits in his Vatican office awaiting an anonymous priest (Phillip Craig) to take his last confession, which he threatens to go public with. He’s lost his faith, and has a tale to tell – a bold pronouncement of corruption and murder in Holy Rome. The priest is, of course, furious that he would even consider such a course of action.

Benelli describes, scene by scene, how he uncovered and confronted corrupt dealings within the Vatican Bank, led by Bishop Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan), that were overlooked by the Pope of the day, Paul VI. He engineers a friend, the seemingly simple and malleable Cardinal Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) to win the vote of ascension, despite secretly coveting the Papal throne for himself.

Paul was lacking in spine to follow through with his own predecessor’s radical overhaul of Vatican politics, but the new Pope John Paul wastes no time rubbing the established order up the wrong way by involuntarily retiring key players in the Vatican regime, and planning some major changes.

As Benelli details the night of the Pope’s death, Crane & director Jonathan Church cleverly engineering the show so Suchet talks both to his confessor (and us) and takes part in the action.

Bennelli discovers through the innocent Sister Vincenza (Sheila Ferris) that the power-broking cabal of Secretary Of State Jean-Marie Villot (Nigel Bennett), and Marcinkus (both of whom were ‘retired’ by the Pope hours before his death) have covered up key details of the Pope’s death, and Monsignor Magee (David Ferry) who was falsely alleged to have discovered the Pope’s body, vanishes and is later found on the run.

Benelli dramatically calls for an autopsy but is denied one, forging ahead instead with an investigation on a smaller scale (with all the aplomb of his famed Poirot), and all manner of intrigue and lies are uncovered. All the while a new Pope must be elected and Benelli makes his play for the job, falling short at the last hurdle.

There is tension and intrigue in spades as the cause of the Pope’s heart attack is left open to speculation: was it ill health? Stress? Poison? It’s like an almost-modern day equivalent of television’s The Borgias, showing little had changed in church politics in hundreds of years.

As Benelli’s ‘last confession’ concludes, his confessor is revealed to be… well that would be telling. Suffice to say it’s a grand reveal, though perhaps one that comes out of left centre rather than climactically.

The actors are at their best when zinging off each other in the tensest scenes – lines bounce back and forth, perfectly timed, like a rally at Wimbledon. It’s magnificent to simply step outside the story for a few moments and watch these consummate performers ply their trade. It’s no surprise they are so seasoned as the production has traversed the globe with many of the lead actors in place.

There’s an odd feeling as the house lights go up, though – one of inconclusiveness. We never get the grand, sweeping resolution all the intrigue has been building up to. Was John Paul murdered? Was his predecessor murdered, or HIS more radical antecdent? Was Benelli murdered, and if so – was John Paul II involved in the decision? Without an acknowledged ‘bad guy’, the piece therefore doesn’t give the satisfaction of a ‘whodunnit’, as some critics have classified it – and in truth it’s more of a dramatic thriller.

None of this can detract from the magnificent acting masterclass though, nor the razor sharp writing by Crane or direction by Jonathan Church, and if Crane’s story IS true, one wonders how clean the Church’s dealings are nowadays, some 35 years later.

The Last Confession runs until 16 August at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth

Category: Movie & Theatre Reviews

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