THEATRE / Sustenance for the Bible hungry: Paul Taylor reviews Doug Lucie's satire about televangelism, Grace, at the Hampstead theatre

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With the speedy efficiency of someone going through a fire drill, the girl suddenly drops to her knees, clamps on a Walkman and starts swaying dreamily. Her eyes are closed, her hand raised in prayerful witness; blissed-out smiles skitter across her face. 'She's taking a spiritual supplement,' explains the tall American woman with the frighteningly fixed grin. The girl has plugged herself into a two-minute cassette of scripture, a handy pill-sized portion of the Good News specially marketed by Enterprise Faith (an ambitious, US-based televangelical outfit) for whenever their followers feel a funny turn (or 'Bible-hunger') coming on, spiritwise. Of this, as of all their other money-making gimmicks, they simply say that 'we discovered a product gap and filled it to the glory of God'.

Rather like Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, Doug Lucie's new play Grace is very funny in parts and makes you laugh out loud, but (just as with that novel) your pleasure in it is marred by the thought that the comedy is firing at a target a mile wide. American televangelism, like the American way of death, is such an eager, self-volunteering candidate for satire that it's in a sense beyond it. Unfair to push the parallel between the drama and the novel too far, though, for Lucie's play aims to cover the darker, more sinister implications of the born-again crusade and also to explore its psychological roots. In both these areas, its success is mixed.

The setting is an estate deep in the English countryside, the home of Ruth Hartstone (splendid Anna Massey), whose sister, Grace, is said to have died there at the age of 15 in miraculous circumstances. Though a tart-tongued sceptic herself, Ruth is broke and so she has decided reluctantly to sell the place to Enterprise Faith who plan to turn it into 'a Christian leisure and satellite broadcasting complex'. It's a nice surprise to see Doug Lucie allowing a member of the upper classes some moral backbone. It would have been even nicer, though, if he'd managed to give Ruth's dilemma (to sell or not to sell) more dramatic substance. The play never convinces you that a woman so direct and truthful could, even when on her uppers, collude in the deception that makes the house attractive to the God Squad. Anna Massey shades in the pain and the parched quality of the woman beautifully, but can't quite disguise the fact that the character's principal function is to hang around and make a lot of witty, stinging remarks against the born-again brigade.

Sincere fundamentalists are more terrifying and mysterious than the hypocrites, but the hypocrites give you easier story-lines. Portraying a man who is quite convinced that he's one of the former, James Laurenson brings an odiously glossy, impregnable smugness to the part of Rev Neal Hoffman. More than a few hints of the bully, too, in the spot-exorcism he performs on his miserable, alcohol-abusing wife (excellent Kate Fahy). Ascribing his own sordid, misspent youth to the lack of a father-figure he could respect, Hoffman has no qualms about inflicting the benefits of macho patriarchy on others. It's a pity we don't see more of him in the play, the focus shifting to the admittedly very funny and shocking sexual hypocrisy and blackmailing tactics of his two henchmen.

There is some first-rate comic acting in Mike Bradwell's production, especially from Kevin Dignam as the young born-again and (as it turns out) not-born-yesterday Brummie on Hoffman's team. Lucie has a devastating ear for cant, but there's something of the permanent undergraduate about his dialogue, a right-on smartness that tackles serious issues (American atrocities in Nicaragua; the unholy rush of Christian capitalism to the new East European markets etc etc) in too glibly point-scoring a way. As satirical polemic, the show has energy and bite, but for depth of insight, this Grace is rather less than amazing.

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