Theatre: Isn't my little boy divine?

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The Independent Culture
JESUS, MY BOY

APOLLO THEATRE

LONDON

TOM CONTI - don't you just adore him? Well, you might, if you didn't feel that all the available kneeling space at that particular shrine had been monopolised by Mr Conti. Consider those brown, liquid, sleepily self-loving orbs of his. If eyes could masturbate in a slow, savouring- each-second sort of way, it would surely look something like this.

Usually, when he is in a play, you can rid yourself of the guilt of voyeurism by directing your attention on to some other member of the cast. That's not an option, though, with Jesus, my boy - a solo vehicle, written by John Dowie, in which, with a grizzled beard, a leather carpenter's apron and a lot of Semitic shrugging, Conti plays Jesus's foster-dad.

Call me an old softie, corrupted by the Christmas spirit, but I didn't loathe every one of the 70 unbroken minutes of the show. Apart from being the role in which many a short-trousered lad makes his stage debut at this time of year, Joseph is also an archetype of the tragicomic cuckold, cast in the position of unwitting gooseberry while the Holy Spirit has its (un)wicked way with the Virgin Mary.

On a set that looks like the background to some Wonders of Woodwork CD- rom, Conti never manages to get especially agitated about any of this. When Mary informs him of the paternity, he shrugs and surmises that she's thinking this is "an old trick but it might work". And, after a birth in which he's a klutzy hands-on participant, he punctures the potential sanctimony by admitting, palms raised heavenward: "To tell you the truth, I was hoping for a little girl." Now there's a thought-provoking cosmic alternative - the Virgin delivered not of the Messiah but of female triplets who spend their lives in Nazareth pettishly pining for Moscow.

The proceedings never begin to match the treatment of Joseph's predicament you find in the medieval mystery plays or, say, in Auden's brilliant Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, where the character's plight mirrors the poet's own confused feelings of betrayal by his lover, Chester Kallman. But, even in the latter half, where you really begin to sense that this piece is hitching a shameless lift on the Christian story, there are moments that disconcert with their direct emotional power.

True, I had to look away when Conti's Joseph, describing the crucifixion, affected to cover his stricken face. And the gorge duly rose at his cutesy farewell: not just "Shalom" but "Shalom. Bye-bye". There were times, too, when you reckoned that outright blasphemy ("Just remember three things, my boy. Don't get mixed up with cults. Don't get nailed down by work. And make a clean exit, don't go in for Sinatra-style comebacks.") would show the subject more respect than maudlin jokiness.

But I confess that I was moved and held by Joseph's distress when he finds the boy Jesus in the temple, irritatedly slaps him, and is met with the desolating response: "Did you not know that I am in the house of my Father?" And it's an instance of rare large-mindedness in the script that Joseph at one point sympathetically remembers another dad whom God put in an awkward spot. After all, there's a parallel show to this that could be called "Judas, my boy".

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