So it’s not Sunday, in fact it’s Saturday, meaning that already I’m feeling a little confused by my visit to the Djanogly Theatre at the Lakeside Arts Centre. I’ve been told Stephen Lowe’s newest play Séance on a Sunday Afternoon is a comedy but it is only upon walking into the auditorium where I’m greeted by spiritual wailings and a moody looking set that I begin to realise that there is far more to this than previously expected.
Séance on a Sunday Afternoon is a comedy but it also presents riveting musings on modern society’s struggle with religious faith. The play begins by introducing us to newly widowed, middle-class, middle-aged, Lewisham marriage counsellor, Celia, who is reluctantly attending a Séance retreat. Throughout the play Celia is the only character who is actually physically present; the other characters are presented as her visions. During her unplanned, and possibly Merlot-induced, Séance we meet her daughter, her husband, Mary Magdalene, and, yes, Jesus. This array of characters provides the dynamics for Celia to wrestle with her loss of faith in Christ due to her husband’s sudden death.
But the confusion does not end there. Instead of five actors being present, Rupert Hill plays both Jesus and Celia’s husband, and Géhane Strehler portrays Celia’s daughter as well as Mary Magdalene. The actors shift between personalities in plain view of the audience which, in one way, questions the physical humanity of Christ on earth but also adds heart-warmingly comical moments to the performance. The impelling dynamic Lowe creates between comic wit and surreal acting methods creates a subtle yet provoking piece of theatre.
Amanda Brown, playing Celia, portrays the widow’s reaction to these profound and shocking visions in an incredibly human and relatable manner which provides a constant source of comedy. Celia’s response of ‘O Jesus’ when she meets Christ before quickly apologising for her blasphemy is quite possibly how we would see ourselves behaving in her position.
However, A Séance on a Sunday Afternoon is far from being just a comedy. The play also deals with contrasting religious and historical views of Jesus’ time on earth, his relationship with Mary Magdalene and the truth behind his resurrection. This leads to a debate amongst the characters as to whether they believe in Jesus and if that necessarily affects their faith in him. Lowe retains the comedic element even here though as Celia initiates a counselling session between Jesus and Mary accompanied (of course) by tea and biccies.
Lowe’s intricate layering of what we believe as real and what we need no physical proof for is reflected in Lydia Denno’s set design. Denno transforms the stage into a garden through a simple set which has a floor of sand, an intricate pergola covered in rose-buds and some large rocks. This allows the actors to be seamlessly transported between locations, from present-day South of France to Israel two thousand years ago, all in one scene. The set is accompanied by the sensitive lighting design of Mark Pritchard who shifts from the realistic warm yellow hues of the garden to surreal flashing blues as Celia travels through her subconscious to find her inner faith. Theatrical reality and Celia’s imagination are continuously blurred, keeping the audience constantly intrigued and uncertain about what level of reality they are witnessing.
Stephen Lowe’s Séance on a Sunday Afternoon does not force the issue of religious uncertainty down our throats, nor does he provide a bias solution for the audience. Instead he aims to present the confusion of the debate in a relatable way; envisaging what most people would say and do if they too were given the chance to investigate the factual side of Christianity. Lowe’s subtle techniques make the audience question their own beliefs, providing a stimulating mental musing that audience members should welcome any afternoon of the week.