The Fulham Jesus proves too big a cross to bear

Review by Paul Nelson

ON PAPER, it looks a good idea to have an Ambridge type political and religious upheaval in a village, this time using Fulham as the locale.

Indeed, the dialogue contains some very funny lines, most of them at the expense of the young upwardly mobile, but the plot of The Fulham Jesus becomes waterlogged and sadly sinks because it is too light and too unnecessarily complicated by the dissolution of what appears to be an ideal marriage.

Martin and Sallie Owen are a happily married couple living in the local area. He is something in the city, as she describes him be buys and sells money, and what kind of a job is that?

Their calm marriage of 10 years standing suddenly hits the rapids with her discovery of what she believes to be a wooden carving of Jesus, and she sets out to find the artist in order to buy it. It becomes a symbol of a new movement of anti-consumerism in her eyes.

The artist, Helen Irving, has leased the upper part of the torso, which is not meant to be Jesus at all, to a prison in Sheffield, but is willing, at a price, to lease the lower half of the carving to Sallie. To Martin's eventual horror, the carving, looking like a log, which is after all what it was carved from, is in their living room and Sallie has spent £500 a week on this, to him, mad wheeze.

She rallies round members of the local church and various committees to form her new movement now based on the lower half of the torso. This means thinking small and getting rid of the bigger things in life, the four-wheel drive, the Range Rover, her husband's BMW (he staunchly rejects this) and eventually the biggest thing, the house, so that the faithful can practice what she preaches, the Fourth Way. New Labour being the third way, this movement will be to embrace miniaturisation, smaller cars, smaller houses etc.

The movement upsets the local pastor who loses most of his flock to it, excites the artist who thinks she has hit a goldmine, and eventually devastates Martin when he realises that having lost his lucrative job, he decides what really matters, which is quite close to Sallie's ideals, is to settle down modestly and have children, but surprisingly this she refuses to do and Martin turns to the old family friend and live-in guest, the loyal Angie.

Of all the reasons why this play falls flat on its face, the performances of the cast and its slick direction are not any of them. It is beautifully performed by a talented cast, all of whom are taken to the cleaners by an outstanding performance of the Rev. Ray by Mark Gillis.

The play's main fracture, apart from Sallie's movement's lacking of clout, is its lack of clarity. Why is Sallie in a state of reception to potty ideas? The subject is skated over. How good is Angie as an entertainer? Well, loads of entertainers have to temp as secretaries, but why is she suddenly an object of interest to Martin? The Owens have known her for years.

Can a stable marriage, and from the performances the Owens' have a rock solid relationship, really founder within the space of a few weeks? The author clearly believes so, putting it down to the fact that Sallie has extreme views. This she does, but in the context of comedy the extreme views should not lead to near tragedy, rather to something more hilarious.

Sadly for me the play didn't work, but rather like watching something magnificent, like the Titanic, go down, it has a certain fascination. A good deal of the audience warmed to the theme. As to whether or not you agree with them or me the fact remains that the cast and director have certainly put their hearts into it, and that counts for a lot.

The Fulham Jesus by Brenda Gottsche, Directed by Jeremy Bond, Set and Costume Design by Naomi Dawson, Sound design and Original Music by Richard Supple, WITH: Virginia Hatton (Sallie), Glen Supple (Martin), Gillian Kirkpatrick (Angie), Lindsay Mohun (Helen Irving), Mark Gillis (Rev. Ray). Produced by Joanne Bhouri for Intej Productions and presented at The Baron's Court Theatre, 28A Comeragh Road, London W14 until February 15 (Tues to Sat at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm). Tickets 020 8932 4747.

GUIDE TO PICTURES: Both photographs show Gillian Kirkpatrick (Angie) and Mark Gillis (The Rev Ray) in The Fulham Jesus.

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Click here for more background on the production in Paul Nelson's preview...