First Night: On The Third Day, New Ambassadors Theatre, London

A reality TV experiment that fails to convince on the stage
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The Independent Culture

It's hard because of all the ballyhoo, but let's try to forget for a moment that On the Third Day, by 51-year-old Kate Betts, is the winning entry in The Play's The Thing, Channel 4's X Factor for dramatists - a series which has set out to see if it is possible to find a new piece by a first-time playwright that can be developed to the point of being worth a West End premiere.

Let's endeavour to block out that programme and the hoopla at last night's press night and imagine how one might react to the play if one didn't know that it was the last surviving guinea pig in this experiment. Then one can address the question of whether the experiment was well-conceived.

I think that I would have wondered why such a talented cast and such excellent production values had been lavished on a drama of which I couldn't really believe a word, even while recognising the sincerity of the writing.

The play focuses on Claire (Maxine Peake), a mixed-up, self-harming woman who is about to hit 30 and, desperate to lose her virginity and take control of her life, picks up Mike (Paul Hilton), an enigmatic sanitary inspector who claims to be Jesus Christ.

Orphaned while they were children, Claire and her now-estranged younger brother, Robbie (Tom McKay) had found comfort in a semi-incestuous relationship. This has arrested their experience as adults. Mike/Jesus attempts to reconcile them.

The production - originally conceived by Steven Pimlott, who had to withdraw because of illness, and now directed by Robert Delamere - spans the outermost reaches of the heavens (cue planetarium footage of swarming galaxies on the wraparound screens) and the depths of the earth (cue scenes of pot-holers dangling on ropes) because Claire and Robbie seem to have absconded from their suffocating embrace into careers at the opposite ends of the time/space spectrum. But as with the Jesus-figure catalyst and the structural nods to Christian death/resurrection, you feel an awkward disproportion between this purported amplitude and the actual emotional dimensions of the play. I completely understand the frustration of West End theatre producer, Sonia Friedman, at the difficulty of initiating new work in the unsubsidised sector.

What I don't comprehend is what she thought she would prove by collaborating with reality TV. In the world of the latter, the stakes have always got to be melodramatically high, people must be seen to lose and the competitive framework (luxuriously bolstered by high-profile experts, purely because the cameras are rolling) cannot be adjusted to provide a workable model for future development.

From the point of view of finding new talent, it would have been better to spend the money on a mini-festival at the Bush or the Gate. But that would not have been invidious enough for TV, which will never be theatre's route to rescue.

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