Written by Tim Foley
Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart
Royal Exchange Theatre
At the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting I was both bemused and intrigued by the prospect of a play that brought nuns and robots on to a theatre stage together. Tim Foley won a Judge’s Award for Electric Rosary and it was a genuinely exciting prospect to see if his theatrical vision could ever be effectively realised. Fast forward to 2022 and despite scheduling delays due to the pandemic the time finally arrived to unpack Mary the council-funded robot nun and deliver her to the shabby, crumbling convent of St Grace.
Times are hard and nuns are in short supply in this grim, futuristic world. Foley cleverly just alludes to this world outside the convent walls where climate change makes for ever muddy fields farmed by robots under threat of attack from dissatisfied Luddites. Jez Woodcock–Stewart invites the audience into the convent to simply imagine this bleak world outside the confines of convent life. It is grim enough inside where the nuns have little to look forward to in this life except extra biscuits and sweet buns if one of their sisters dies, and the dwindling hope of affording a trip to visit their twin convent in Ecuador.
Designer Charlotte Espiner opts for a beautiful inlaid wooden floor made for years of mopping and polishing. There are random boxes of overspill relics alongside the obligatory tea trolleys, candles and a beatific crucified Jesus. The staging of the closing scenes provide an uplifting miracle as cascading rainbows are born of the eventual use of the chains that rise up from floor to ceiling in the second act. They initially suggested the wild possibility in this eclectic play that the trip to Ecuador might yet be funded through the creation of an S&M dungeon club staffed by robot nuns!
The Royal Exchange is the perfect setting for this new play. It is home to The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting which champions new works and supports new writers. A play that introduces robots as our future into an out of date convent immersed in the rituals and relics of the past. A play performed in a space age like theatre that breathed new light into a defunct old building that had once been a thriving cathedral to commerce that had once birthed both Luddites and Cottonopolis.
The simple setting is a very fitting backdrop for this production which is filled with strong, vivid performances from all the actors. Foley writes these women in a very authentic way and avoids them simply becoming comedic caricatures to simply deliver the humour and provide contrast to robot Mary. Jo Mousley is doggedly determined as Acting Mother Sister Elizabeth as her ambitious streak squares up to the gritty and world weary Sister Constance. Owen May is marvellous as the older nun with a secret pain that makes a possible miracle in Ecuador even more poignant. She exudes gritty common sense and is a mistress of the pithy one liner. The other nuns provide additional shades of dark and light with a mischievously comedic turn by Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as the boxfresh, ingénue postulant Sister Theresa while Suzette Llewellyn brings complexity to Sister Philippa with her complusive need for faith and duty to sooth her troubled mind.
The standout performance is however Breffni Holahan as Mary, the newly arrived robot nun. She is eerily believable with her bird like movements and watchful stare, you can literally see the cogs of machine intelligence as she absorbs and assimilates her environment and new companions while she calmly mops like a smiling maniac. Her journey from her council funded programming through to her emerging belief that she is indeed a conduit for miracles is genuinely moving.
It’s delightfully bonkers veering through a kaleidoscope of ideas and concepts like a night at Eurovision. At times it feels like a rollicking good farce with almost a 70s sitcom feel before moving towards more sinister sci-fi themes and sideways to a detective drama or Grand Inquisition as Sister Elizabeth seeks to discover who nobbled her election as Mother Superior. Electric Rosary questions our faith and our humanity in a fast changing world and seeks to explore the nature of miracles whether we place our hopes in the religious or the secular. Electric Rosary is a play that simply shouldn’t really work and yet miraculously it really does hit its mark on so many levels.