If you haven’t got tickets, then rush to get them—this show is sold out practically every night and it finishes soon – 25th September. Go… Now … Then return.

I wasn’t really looking forward to St Mary’s in Exile for two reasons. It’s fairly long – two hours and 10 minutes (theatre rule one – the longer the play the more likely I have a full bladder). But mostly I don’t like being preached at – preached to is fine – but being harangued about the Catholic Church and its many abuses sort of takes the bubble out of a night’s ‘entertainment’ and obviously David Burton’s play has the potential to declaim at an audience. For two plus hours. I shuddered when I saw the unimaginative stage design. Oh no, I’m not going to like this. How wrong could I be?

Burton’s play recreates Father Peter Kennedy’s final years at St Mary’s. It opens as Kennedy (Peter Marshall) is packing. He’s been ousted because of his heterodoxy. For many Catholics the Church’s teachings on women clergy, homosexuality (Beth – Chenoa Deemal), celibacy (Terry – Kevin Spink), mass, contraception are alienating, and St Mary’s has been ‘going its own way’ for several years. It appears the unconventional priests are only acceptable on the screen. So finally Kennedy is exiled; while the storm rages (how very Lear) he rages against the dark night and sips whiskey. Enter an injured stranger to set the narrative flashbacks in motion. Now seeing a priest sipping whiskey is nothing new to most Catholics – but helping the needy, isn’t that nun’s work?

The play doesn’t merely chronicle the controversies – that would be too easy; it philosophically considers issues underlying Father Kennedy’s decisions. Was he a spiritual leader or a secular egotist – a question not easily answered. What about the church’s rigid hierarchy (Archbishop – Joss McWilliam) – isn’t the congregation the heart of the church? And of course, the biggie – isn’t the Catholic Church merely an elaborate men’s club out of touch with the real world.

It’s a clever play. Burton deftly interweaves fact with fiction to produce a meaningful and thought-provoking play for all 21st century religions to consider. The direction is deftly handled by Jason Klarwein. The acting is uniformly high – McWilliams looked amazingly different in each of his three roles. Special kudos to Peter Marshall as Father Kennedy-he looks amazingly like Kennedy, though that shouldn’t matter-he carries the audience through some deeply philosophical monologues without being boring or sounding preachy.

The set design is flat, the controversial story perhaps needed a traditional set—it was certainly recognisable to anyone who had ever stepped into a church. What I felt was lacking was the melding of outside sources –interpolation of the media and church responses was somewhat uninspired, though the ‘Greek Chorus’ works. The audience particularly enjoyed the buffoonery of the Q&A piece. With all the proselytising, a little levity was in order.

In all the two hours flew by. It’s a strangely uplifting play – it gives hope that there are Catholic priests out there who put parishioners first. Though some of the Church’s protests about Kennedy seem valid, the logic just doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The audience roots for Father Kennedy and, though it could be a case of preaching to the choir, it’s the sheer humanity of the man and his beliefs that wins hearts.

St Mary’s in Exile is playing at Billie Brown Studio until September 25. To book tickets, click here.

Words by Toni Johnson-Woods
Image via Facebook