The Last Confession

Theatre Royal, September 24 

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Philip Craig & David Suchet. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Is David Suchet as perfect a Cardinal Benelli on stage as he was a Hercule Poirot on television? No. But this production is studded with moments denoting an exceptional actor, capable of imbuing his character’s power and gravitas with charm. And Benelli needs a layer of Suchet charm, because, as written by first-time playwright Roger Crane, he is rather a cold fish.

Benelli is a king-maker who smooths Albino Luciani’s 1978 path to becoming Pope John Paul I, and, when the Pontiff is found dead in his bed 33 days later, it is Benelli who eyes his brother cardinals with Poirot-like suspicion.

Crane’s play is essentially political, with Benelli possessing the sharpest mind and an honourable heart in a pack of cardinals overly replete with knaves. Thickening it thematically is the matter of faith, and spicing it narratively is a whodunit, or, more precisely, a did-anyone-do-it?

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Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Crane’s finest creation is John Paul, a Machiavellian minnow in a sea of sharks. Richard O’Callaghan’s performance glows with the appeal this priest of child-like simplicity, commendable humility and a moral compass of unwavering polarities. His intention to remove corrupt and obstructionist prelates from the Curia provides ample motive for his own elimination.

The crisis of faith is Bellini’s, and Crane was on the edge of a brilliant rather than a good play had he made this issue more genuinely pivotal, instead of just feeding in a few lines of hand-wringing anguish. Suchet makes the most of what he is given, and is consummate when rising to a pitch of fury. But some mannerisms seem slightly contrived amid the seamlessness of O’Callaghan and Sheila Ferris’s delightful Sister Vincenza.

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Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Jonathan Church’s production for the Chichester Festival Theatre is crisp, lively and lavish, boasting a 20-strong cast of quality actors from the UK, US, Canada and Australia (all opulently frocked and deftly amplified). Perhaps he moves his players excessively, when less motion may have sharpened tension on occasion. William Dudley’s ingeniously modular set lends the play a flow it needs to lessen its tendency to archness, a symptom of which is the odd line overly impressed with its own conceit. Ultimately it is a production that, like the incense wafting through the theatre, carries hints of something higher just out of reach.

Until October 12.