Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play pitches moral relativism against faith in a better world, as a young couple’s relationship is seen in a handful of meetings time-bent across two decades and continents. Sophie (Hayley Atwell) yearns to reach out and help the world, while Tom (Kyle Soller) has betrayed his talent for writing to the amorality of the marketing industry. We find them thrown together by love and ripped apart by ethical differences as Campbell explores the manner in which ideals motivate actions, and idealism can define a life.
Sophie takes her inspiration from her father (Ian McDiarmid), an ultra-liberal and iconoclastic Anglican bishop, wrestling with his own convictions following the implications of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Father and daughter are both desperate to respond to a calling, both bitterly disappointed by the world’s willingness to compromise. McDiarmid plays Edward with a purring intelligence and incredible charm. An early scene in which he builds from playfully questioning his daughter’s new boyfriend to viciously interrogating the cowardice of the church is as funny and well observed as it is uncompromising. Later, when Edward’s mind begins to splinter under Alzheimer’s, McDiarmid gives him all the shattered dignity of Lear in his cave.
Elsewhere performances are mixed, Soller’s neurotic energy is as transfixing as ever, but often overwhelms Atwell, while Bronagh Gallagher seems content to play Edward’s Ukranian housekeeper for comic relief. The real failings, however, are confined to Campbell’s script. Everything is just too easy, with moral dilemmas too pat to be profound and a surprising deferral of ethical complexity. Both Tom and Sophie are so strident and insensitive in their beliefs that they quickly become avatars for ideas rather than living characters. Sophie in particular is a relentlessly smug Mary Sue of a character, and the play’s refusal to properly question her motives leaves a gaping hole in its centre.
Frustratingly, the play also feels overburdened with too many weighty allusions. The shadow of 9/11 descends early and is repeatedly evoked as a backdrop to Tom and Sophie’s relationship, and the ghost of Hamlet is never far away. The themes of apathy versus action, of a ‘call to arms’ against a life of compromise are so heavy and obvious in themselves that the presence of these undercurrents feels unnecessary.
Campbell’s play aspires most clearly to Chekhov, with his narrative split into confrontations held years apart from one another, his movements from town to country and his themes of love and idealism betrayed by the concessions life forces upon us. The Faith Machine would have required a far lighter touch to succeed in such epic pretensions. The comic scenes contain some brilliant writing, but it is brilliance of the Frasier variety, sharp and biting but ultimately adding little to the characters or their situations. There are fascinating ideas at play here, and the aging Edward is a role both written and performed to perfection, but the play surrounding him is too blunt an instrument to make sense from the great themes at which it strikes.