Press Night for Holy Sh!t came the Monday after the US Open finals weekend where headlines were dominated not by Novak’s resurgence or Naomi Osaka’s debut win but by the row between Serena Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos. The fallout from that was notably ugly with more than tinges of racism and sexism found in many corners masquerading as fair debate. I bring this up because the same nasty shadows were the subject of protests outside the Kiln that night, and the subject matter on the stage.
Off stage, a small crowd of protestors – noticeably older and white – were hogging the entrances to the Kiln protesting the name change of the theatre from Tricycle. They argued they hadn’t been consulted; I wondered why they felt this, of all issues, was the one in theatre worthy of a protest. But when they started up a chant they had written “Indhu, Indhu,” directly aimed at Artistic Director, Indhu Rubasingham, whose parents are Sri Lankan, the scene went from mildly embarrassing and infantile to deeply worrying.
Just how thin the veneer is over our quietly-harboured racist, sexist and prejudicial opinions is also what is confronted on the stage in Holy Sh!t and, given all this preamble, the fact that this new play from Alexis Zegerman hits its mark perfectly is one hell of an ironic achievement.
Juliet (Claire Goose), a white woman, and Nick (Daon Broni), a black man, are a couple trying desperately to get their daughter in to the school at the end of the road. School places are fiercely contested and, given that it is a church school, Juliet, in particular, is devoted to regular church attendance and doing all that is reasonably possible to secure her daughter a place.
As is her best friend Simone (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and her partner Sam (Daniel Lapaine), who also want their daughter to go to the same school. Only Simone and Sam are Jewish – not that Sam believes at all, as cynical about Judaism as he is about all organised religions – but he’s willing (just about) to go along with his wife’s decision to convert to Christianity just so they can get a school place.
However, this horrifies Juliet and her friend’s decision starts pulling at the loose threads in their friendship, unravelling all of their relationships across the four adults.
This is quite brilliant writing from Alexis Zegerman, exposing the hypocrisy amongst those of us who claim a liberal outlook. As the play rushes like an adrenalin ride towards its finale, the loose words and offensive phrases tumble from the character’s lips too quickly for the politically correct part of their brain to intervene. Which is exactly the point. The audience winced and gasped at some of the tossed out phrases and language. It’s that pressure – when placed under stress, what will we reveal about ourselves?
It is the way this play tackles prejudice that will grab the attention, but I also sensed a real sadness at the way we are forced to operate within a broken system. Each of the four characters in this play are compromising, whether that be in their integrity to do what’s best for their kids or staying silent just to be able to get through the day in one piece.
The four actors in this production are excellent. Their characters are complex and nuanced, requiring a lot of conflicting motivations at once and the ease with which they can flip from people with whom we sympathise to those we abhor is done almost effortlessly. And Indhu, in the director’s chair here, accelerates it terrifically towards its finale.
The challenge is though, what constitutes a finale? How can you wrap all this up? It is an open wound. These are pressing and current issues and we seem to have no solutions. The way the system and the people operate and behave is broken – where do we go from here? And rather than the play answering its own question, it seems to push it back on us. A disappointment, maybe, but judging by the way behaviour is outside the theatre, we are all clearly bereft of answers
Kiln Theatre, London, to October 6, 2018.
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Mark Douet