Shaun Prendergast’s new play, Faith and Cold Reading, asks some potent questions: if you have faith does it matter if what you believe in is real or fake, if ultimately it helps you? Isn’t it worse to have your faith taken from you? The play doesn’t provide any clear answers here, but it’s an entertaining (if sometimes bloody) exploration of the issues nonetheless.
Christopher Patrick Nolan plays Sam, a professional medium, who owes cash to Geordie bruiser Mickey. Mickey, not being the sharpest tool in the box, has borrowed the money from local gangster Freddie the Suit – played by Stephen Tompkinson – and is in way deeper than he can handle. It seems that the only way to write off the debt is for Sam to contact Freddie’s recently deceased mother and help Freddie to reach ‘closure’. Laura Norton as Carla, Sam’s lap dancer girlfriend, completes the cast and provides some welcome sanity and balance alongside these larger than life male characters.
Characterization is an issue in Prendergast’s play. To explore the very nature of faith, some of the characters must be morally dubious in order to stretch the audience’s belief and trust. But this has resulted in some rather exaggerated portrayals. Patrick Joseph’s Mickey in particular struggles with the clichés inherent in his character. He’s clearly there to provide a source of comedy and knows it, perhaps too well: one could argue that this approach suits his thuggish character but in reality it’s just jarring. Nolan’s turn as the medium is also a tad hammy but, in this case, this approach is more successful. His performances of the scenes of cold reading or clairvoyance (depending on your standpoint) are powerfully delivered.
Norton and Tompkinson have a strong on-stage rapport and the scenes focussed on just the two of them flow well, both in terms of pacing and dialogue. They both play strong, articulate individuals who are able to discuss the play’s central issue of faith without it ever sounding contrived. Tompkinson’s performance in particular is engaging and complex; he’s charismatic, menacing and yet also extremely superstitious (with an amusing tendency to mix his metaphors). It’s a powerful piece of acting that holds the production together; he revels in the play’s genuinely funny word play and the result is a rather imposing, unpredictable character.
Jonathan Moore’s production is at times brutal and doesn’t shy away from extremes of violence. Sometimes these scenes were a little implausible and the proximity of the audience to the stage in the Live Theatre also makes it difficult hide any stage trickery. It’s also worth noting that those seated on the front row may encounter more blood splatter than they bargained for. In the end it’s the performances that make this production. The play itself doesn’t always gel together either in terms of tone or intention but the combined efforts of Tompkinson and the almost equally compelling Norton go some way to compensate.