Racing Demon seems a rather curious play to put at the heart of Sheffield Theatres' David Hare season. The comedy-drama about four Church of England priests is set in the dying days of Thatcherism as 1989 turns into 1990. References to the ordination of women and the role of gay priests sit alongside digs at the Poll Tax and a little bit of Yazz.
At the heart of the play are four excellent performances from Malcolm Sinclair, Jamie Parker, Ian Gelder and Matthew Cottle as the four priests, whose own struggles with faith, politics, love and the church are beautifully expressed. Malcolm Sinclair is wonderful as the well-meaning, left-leaning, very British Lionel, whose shaky faith contrasts sharply with his fellow ministers: enthusiastic Tony, veering somewhere in between earnestness and madness; the simple, sweet and hilarious Donald 'Streaky' Bacon, and the honourable but pressured Harry. Each man's own take on faith and morality is expressed clearly and their struggles with their inner selves, their faith, their desires and the church they belong feel very real.
The standout scenes are the hilarious hotel bar scene in which the priests engage in a few rounds of tequila sunrises, and the incredibly sad and touching scene where three of the priests face a very painful parting of the ways.
Production-wise, the set is simple but effective. There's a beautiful leaded church window backdrop, illuminated in an array of different ways for each scene, and a lovely parquet church floor effect on the stage. The follow spots occasionally fail to find their actors correctly, though, and there are also points where some of the actors fail to find the fixed lighting on stage and end up in The Shadows. Personally, I would have liked there to be a little more movement in places, as there were several rather static scenes, heavy with dialogue, with only two or three characters conversing on the large Crucible stage. The play is also rather long and in places sags a little. Some scenes, such as Lionel's confrontation with the Bishop, would have benefited from a few more edits.
The characters presented in the play may seem a little like caricatures, but rest assured, they are all easily recognisable for those who were involved in some way in the church at the time the play was set. However, that is the key problem with Racing Demon - in order to fully appreciate it, you would probably need to have both an experience of some form of institutionalised church and a fairly good recollection of British politics and culture circa 1989-1990. I can imagine those in the audience who don't fit into either category would find the play alienating in parts.
Director Daniel Evans seems to have a keen interest in reviving political plays and to find their relevance for Britain in the 2010s. He achieved this in his triumphant Enemy of the People (also at The Crucible), but whilst Ibsen's play resonated very well with a contemporary audience, I don't know if the same will be true of Racing Demon. Unlike the wonderful Plenty (1978), playing in the Crucible Studio at the moment, this David Hare play seems to be very much of its time - and that time was before many of those who will see it were even born.
All of this is not to say that the Crucible's Racing Demon is a failure - it has some excellent performances, a beautiful set and there are moments that are in turns heartbreakingly sad and laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, I can't help but feel that whilst some plays transcend the time and context in which they were written, Racing Demon is possibly not one of them.
Racing Demon is at the Crucible, Sheffield until March 5th.