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REVIEW: The Sanctuary Lamp

PUBLISHED: 14:57 29 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:46 05 October 2010

The Sanctuary Lamp, Arcola Theatre, Dalston The flexibility of Dalston s Arcola Theatre really shines through in the latest production to play out between its walls. This time the theatre, a low-ceilinged hangar, has been transformed into an entire church

The Sanctuary Lamp, Arcola Theatre, Dalston

The flexibility of Dalston's Arcola Theatre really shines through in the latest production to play out between its walls. This time the theatre, a low-ceilinged hangar, has been transformed into an entire church nave. It is a striking introduction to the gloomy goings-on that will follow.

'The Sanctuary Lamp' has been both written and directed by award-winning Irish playwright, Tom Murphy for this new performance of his 1975 play. It is a privilege to watch a play in the form intended by its author, and the purpose of the writing is clear as a result.

When it was first performed in the Seventies, 'The Sanctuary Lamp' caused outrage among the Catholic Church. Thirty-five years on, audiences are more open to criticism of institutional religion - whether a subscriber or not.

Even so, elements of the play still hold the ability to stir. Looking on as a man swigs from a wine bottle and puffs cigarette smoke from the back of a pew still makes an impact. And lifting a pulpit from its foundations still somehow crosses the line.

Three lost souls find sanctuary in a church. Robert O'Mahoney plays ranting old cuckold, Harry - a former circus strongman whose sanity slipped away with his strength.

Kate Brennan is haunting as the archetypal waif, Maudie, who floats, wide-eyed, through the shadows. Both are cold and inaccessible on their own, but together they bring life and light to the stage.

The driving force behind plot and character comes from leather-clad letch Francisco, played by Declan Conlon. Conlon injects vigour into the lengthy monologues, which otherwise begin to drag a little, and spits out Murphy's script like it is Shakespeare. The poetry in the writing suddenly becomes more apparent, punctuated by vocalisations here and there - such as "Hmm?" and "You know?" - which succeed in creating an amusing rhythm as well as irritation.

Stage and seating are separated by pillars, serving as church columns as well as holding up the ceiling. And in a play full of symbols, these pillars are important.

They both obstruct the audience's view and add to the set's success. The play is funny and bleak, hopeful and apocalyptic, enlightening and mysterious. But getting in isn't easy.

Jasmine Coleman


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