Doubt: A Parable – Review

Jonathan Chambers & Stella Gonet in Doubt. Images Paul Nicholas Dyke.

It’s been a decade since John Patrick Shanley’s masterful debate play, Doubt – A Parable, appeared on the London stage but it’s back and it would be a mortal sin to miss it.

This powerful and compelling drama opened at the Southwark Playhouse on Friday night and the audience were enthralled by the story-telling.

Listening to the explosive exchanges between Stella Gonet’s rigidly conservative nun, Sister Aloysius, and Jonathan Chambers’ liberal-minded progressive, Father Brendan Flynn, was like sitting ringside at a heavyweight title fight.

She comes out of her corner like a religious Rottweiler, teeth bared, eyes wide with fury, ready to rip into an amiable, well-meaning, priest whose chief transgression, in her books, was having long fingernails, a touchy-feely disposition and possibly a mortal sin in the closet.

The wonderful thing about Doubt – and many may remember the sensational 2008, Oscar-nominated, screen version starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep – is its ambiguity.

Shanley’s searing dialogue keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the 90-minute performance.

Why is Sister Aloysius hell bent on destroying the young priest ? Does he have a guilty secret? Is she right with her unfounded suspicions?

This thought-provoking, astonishingly well-acted play throws up more questions than it answers.

The cast of four are heavenly.

Gonet, dressed in a puritanical style of nun’s habit, delivers an incendiary performance, goading, baiting and, ultimately acting as inquisitor to force the amiable priest out of the school she runs in 1960s New York.

Entirely devoid of compassion, suspicious of any good deed or action, she refuses any interaction with her students. Her role in their lives is to get them through school and no more.

She gets her opportunity to act against Father Flynn when naive young nun, the impressionable Sister James (Clare Latham) voice concerns about the welfare of the school’s only black student, Donald Muller, after a one-to-one meeting with the priest.

She accuses him of sexual misconduct with the boy. But is she right? Or has her single-minded attitude, and deep mistrust, blinded her to the truth?

Director Ché Walker keeps up a blistering pace throughout, unleashing the rabid Sister Aloysius at every opportunity to pummel Flynn into submission, and that includes landing a few illegal, low blows.

The priest opens the play by delivering his sermon to his congregation and it’s powerfully impressive.

Chambers captures the charm and charisma of the young priest, his easy attitude making him an instant hit with his young charges and the audience.

But underneath his affable demeanour is a man as determined and as resilient as his detractor. He refuses to be browbeaten by her unfounded accusations and uses his sermons to retaliate.

Sister Aloysius’ stormy meeting with Donald’s mother is so intense and mesmerising that the first night audience burst into spontaneous applause at its conclusion.

Jo Martin is terrific as the boy’s mum who is fighting racial prejudice and domestic abuse in a bid to give her son a chance in life.

This remarkable production deserves to be seen by a bigger audience and I have faith that it will transfer.

In a holy war of words between the godly and the pious the only certainty is that doubt will prevail.

Doubt runs at the Southwark Playhouse until September 30.

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