There are 86 reviews for Marks and Spencer’s Tailored Fit Cotton Rich Corduroy Trousers online. 81% of respondents would recommend the garment to a friend and comments submitted include: “Corduroy trousers. Just what I needed. Excellent quality and fit.” Additionally, 41 of the 86 awarded the well-loved leg-coverings – available in black, navy or grey – five stars. I imagine that M&S sell quite a lot of corduroy trousers and indeed you’re better off ordering them online rather than, for instance, trying to buy them inside the Bath branch according to the ‘buy in store’ tracker I just checked.
But if you happen to be in the West Country spa town and find this ‘out of stock’ status alarming, there is an alternative way to get your fix of this most teddy-bear like of fabrics. For his performances as the Rev Lionel Espy in Racing Demon at the Theatre Royal Bath, David Haig has been magnificently corduroyed – not just in dress but also in spirit. A cherubic parson beaming beneficently down on his dwindling flock, Haig has become a man whose most aggressive act is chew-fucking-chewing down on a big bowl of All-Bran each morning. With vowel sounds lasting longer that the entire Euuuuucharist, he’s the bumbling, be-slippered vicar better suited to handing out Hobnobs than holy wafers. In David Hare’s vision of the Church of England, Christ died on a cross bought in a Bank Holiday sale at a provincial pine showroom.
And Haig isn’t the only performer to have undergone a significant and skilful transformation for this production of Hare’s ecclesiastical play. Paapa Essiedu has taken the charm displayed in his previous roles, including the RSC’s Hamlet, down approximately 78 places. As the young Rev Tony Ferris, his voice is the insistent nasal drone of an Evangelical bore. I once saw him as a very dapper Joseph Surface in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. Then, he got to strut around in a navy frock coat with billowing blousy cuffs, but here he comes down to earth in regulation church issue frump. He arrives at a church meeting with a nylon Eurohike backpack worn high on his back. Everything you need to know about Tony is contained in this backpack; not in the sense of what’s actually inside it, but in the way that he pedantically preferences back posture over style, earnestly tightening the straps so he can better transport his weighty prayer books and prejudices around town. Something about this twee backpack gets my heathen pan-like goat. I find a scrawled line in my notebook saying simply: “Tony – fucking backpack.”
Not the most informative description, admittedly. However, it is in the visuals that Jonathan Church’s production best succeeds in capturing Hare’s middle point of middle England. Simon Higlett’s design is taken verbatim from a Laura Ashley catalogue, complete with chintz on blouses, white-painted wall panels and, in a moment of peak bucolicism, a wooden trug. The interior setting of the church, however, is impressive in its stature and dappled light, but feels incongruously dark for an CofE property, taking its design cues instead from the Brompton Oratory.
The faults, meanwhile, can be blamed pretty solidly on Hare’s text. At certain points the work’s ability to consistently capture this or that trope of British life tips over the edge of the chalky cliffs and plunges into the sea of stereotype. Among the flapjack munching pontificators, the introduction of a sole working class woman from the local council estate is broad and generally unconvincing. As a character, she is present only to give the vicars a schism to be skittish about and to drag a state-of-the-nation mop and bucket around the nave. Repeated scenes of the characters praying alone but out loud are too easily expository with the individuals all possessing an uncanny ability to make first person speech do the job of third person narrative.
It’s this same reliance on caricature that prevents Racing Demon from genuinely interrogating or exploring a religious institution now largely remembered as Henry VIII’s most enduring creation. There is little in the play that would surprise a viewer familiar with how the Church of England is generally perceived: arguments over the ordination of women bishops, division between liberals and evangelicals, and a sex scandal involving homosexual vicars about to break in the tabloids. What is missing is any subtlety, complexity or revelation of insider knowledge. In short, this is a play written by someone with their nose pressed up against the stained glass and their fingers only tickling the surface of the font water. The playwright’s best asset is bottling and decanting a cartoonish version of Englishness; splodging it out like a lemon curd stain on Blue Harbour casual wear. This is a solid and studiously designed production with a great cast but, as far as religion is concerned, Hare’s play offers more insight into shepherd’s pie than Psalm 23.
Racing Demon is on until 8 July 2017 at the Theatre Royal Bath. Click here for more details.