The Screwtape Letters
Dir. Joseph Hartropp
Presented by CMAD in association with Mermaids, The Screwtape Letters follows senior devil Screwtape in his tutelage of impressionable students at Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils in Hell. A foolish oversight in church ‘maintenance’ allows a human soul to slip through Screwtape’s net of temptation and convert to Christianity. In an ever-increasing spiral of desperation, Screwtape attempts to use his students to reclaim the lost soul before news of the mistake wends its winding way up the chain of command – for no-one is safe from the wrath of ‘the boss’.
Adapted from C.S. Lewis’ novel of the same name, The Screwtape Letters is explicitly didactic but rarely becomes preachy. Story and dialogue are both strong, tackling theological issues in a thought-provoking manner. Occasionally, however, pithy one line sum-ups of challenging ideas felt patronising and ‘idiot-proof’. The text would have been more engaging if these had been cut.
First time director Joseph Hartropp delivers a promising debut: his use of the space is well considered and displays a flair for creative staging. A scene in which Screwtape invisibly leads a church congregation in song is of particular note for its construction. Furthermore imaginative use of lighting compliments the action on stage well. At the centre of the production is Screwtape himself and Dominic Kimberlin gave an excellent performance in the title role. His commitment never faltered and was equally as strong in comedy and tragedy, skipping between intense monologues and hilarious choking on the word ‘Christian’. Also delivering a consistently strong performance was Tiffany Brannon in multiple parts, who showed clear characterisation throughout.
The show was not without its mistakes, however. Lack of a dress rehearsal led to opening night being riddled with small slip-ups that offset the pace and sometimes the set changes dragged. This is by and by – the aspect of the show that needed the most work was in the characterisation of the students. It was unclear whether they were supposed to be absurd comic characters with heightened physicality, or demure students of (evil) philosophy. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the absence of character continuity suggested otherwise. Though much of the comedy was well delivered, the ‘awkward’ jokes required greater commitment to become funny. As it was, self-consciousness caused them to be more painful than humorous.
I sincerely hope that we will be seeing more of Hartropp in the future: he evidently has natural ability and further practice will only help to refine this.