COMEDY / Satanic verses: Craig Ferguson hijacks the Vatican in an irreverent Catholic rock musical. James Rampton meets Falkirk's Vegas man

The Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson is not noted for his love of the press, so it was worrying to be greeted by him wielding two handguns and a manic grin. Fortunately, he was only rehearsing for a bullet-spattered scene in Daniel Abineri's Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom, a rock musical about venality in the Vatican.

It's your average artistic portrayal of the Catholic Church - all sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. The twist is that this production is being mounted in a church - the Union Chapel in London's Islington. For the next five Sundays, the Pentecostalist congregation will have to pick their way through a 260-lamp lighting rig and a stage built around the monumental stone pulpit.

The 1200-seat venue will offer concessionary tickets to the clergy, but that has not sweetened their attitude to the musical. Before rehearsals had even begun, the Scottish Catholic Church condemned the production, and a few more denunciations from the pulpit will bring in better publicity than any interview with a newspaper ever could.

Ferguson plays Father MacLean, a satanic figure who manoeuvres a naive lad called Johnny (played by Then Jericho heart-throb Mark Shaw) into the Papal throne. Relaxing in the sort of trendy cafe you only find in Islington, Ferguson says he would welcome further ecclesiastical protests - and the attendant headlines - but maintains they would be misguided. 'The play is not anti-religious - in fact, it's very moral. It's a story of corruption set against a backdrop of purity. It isn't irreligious, it's irreverent.'

MacLean bears out the adage that the bad guys get all the best lines. 'I'm a Las Vegas-stroke-Falkirk entertainer. For me, it's a gift of a part,' Ferguson smiles. 'You can get right into your own dark side; it's nice to embrace that in a controlled environment rather than socially.' Ferguson asserts that he based his characterisation on a quotation from Thomas Mann's Felix Krull - 'the monks of unreason.' To research the part further, Ferguson also brushed up on a bit of Latin. 'I use a Latin incantation to call up the Devil which means 'I'm just a really nice boy from Scotland'. But in Latin it sounds very scary.'

It wasn't the smells and bells that attracted Ferguson, however, so much as the music. A former drummer with such black holes in the New Wave firmament as the Dreamboys, he reckons Bad Boy Johnny has 'proper music with proper words like 'baby' - none of that 'I'm the little Dutch girl' nonsense. The score features a spectacular use of the E chord and feedback.'

The Dreamboys were just one dip in a roller-coaster career that has encompassed the writing of a TV sitcom and a politically correct panto, a spell in the West End Rocky Horror Show, a starring role opposite Robbie Coltrane in The Bogie Man, a documentary about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and an affair with tabloid darling Fiona Fullerton (hence his wariness of the press). He is currently appearing on BBC2 in his own stand-up-cum-sketch show, The Ferguson Theory, which he describes as 'ethnic, Glaswegian, voodoo, Apache comedy' - ie he wears leather trousers and shouts a lot.

The future promises further thesping. Although disdainful of trained actors - 'all they teach you in drama school is how to do stage fights and be a pain in rehearsals' - Ferguson does not rule out a promotion into the Premier Luvvie League. 'I was never cut out to play Romeo, but I wouldn't mind a crack at The Government Inspector. I like all that 1830s Russian theatre - original, heightened, pantomimic stuff.' Played in a Las Vegas-stroke- Falkirk kind of way.

'Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom', Union Chapel, off Upper St, London N1 (071-379 4444) from tonight for five weeks. The first 20 readers to present this page at the box office from 7pm tonight can buy two tickets for the price of one

(Photographs omitted)

Comments