For Arrows & Traps, known for their popular adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works of literature, The Gospel According to Philip is unfamiliar territory. A brand new comedy written by Richard Melchior and Heidi Svoboda, the play couldn’t be more different to the company’s last two shows: a bloody and politically charged Macbeth, preceded by a gripping adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina.
So, a bit of a gamble perhaps for Arrows director Ross McGregor, but did it pay off? Absolutely.
To be more exact, The Gospel According to Philip left me wondering why it took Arrows & Traps so long to tackle their first outright comedy. Not to mention giggling all the way home over the brilliantly bonkers dance routines. (If you need only one reason to see this show, make it the unforgettable sight of Jesus Irish dancing. You’re welcome.)
The play is an irreverent re-imagining of the story of Jesus and his disciples, leading up to the crucifixion, all set down in often quite unnecessary amounts of detail by Philip, the newest member of the gang. Will Mytum, who plays the eager apostle, is irresistible from the moment he steps on stage – even before he opens his mouth, he has us laughing with his earnest expression and childlike excitement… and he only gets more adorable as the play goes on.
As in previous Arrows productions, every member of the cast excels, with most of them taking on multiple roles, and all proving themselves to be gifted comedians. Adam Elliott is full of charisma as bad boy Judas, while Elle Banstead Salim is a whirlwind of energy as feisty chatterbox Mary Magdalene (and also puts in a couple of fantastic cameos as a bride upstaged by Jesus at her own wedding, and Pontius Pilate’s Catherine Tate-inspired receptionist). Alex Stevens has perhaps the most challenging role as Paul, whose wildly homophobic language only thinly veils his private confusion and vulnerability. And then there’s Jesus, played by Pearce Sampson, master of the beatific smile, albeit often through gritted teeth, who grows increasingly frustrated as the disciples persist in asking awkward questions he can’t answer.
Which brings us to the message at the heart of a play that’s undoubtedly very funny, but has a serious point to make as well. In a scene that even the script acknowledges is a bit preachy and makes everyone uncomfortable, a smiley, likeable Devil (Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes) paints a vivid picture for Jesus of the bleak future ahead, in which human beings will commit acts of horrifying violence in the name of their faith – but even this can’t deter him from the path laid out for him. Later, Jesus asks Matthew Harrison-James’ Geordie-accented God (who has a few issues of his own to work out) why he has to die in such a horrific way, and – while clearly dissatisfied with the response – goes ahead and does it anyway, because that’s The Plan.
Perhaps it sounds like Melchior and Svoboda’s play is anti-religion, or out to cause offence. It’s true that it plays fast and loose with the Bible as we know it – although I must admit I quite enjoy the idea that the Last Supper might have consisted of crisps and rum instead of bread and wine. But ultimately, the unexpectedly sombre final speech of an older, wiser Philip is one of acceptance. Some people have faith; some don’t, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter – as long as we exercise caution. Believing something just because “it is written”, without question, is just as dangerous as believing nothing at all – and that’s a rule that could be applied to all kinds of things, not just religion.
The Gospel According to Philip is witty, cheeky, sometimes very silly and ultimately pretty challenging. And it’s been brought to life for the very first time by a company who, it seems, can turn their hand to just about anything. Including Irish dancing, apparently.
The Gospel According to Philip is at Theatre N16 until 8th September.