The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, Almeida Theatre, London

The Devil and the deeply blue

Rhoda Koenig
Monday 07 April 2008 00:00

Part Jerry Springer, part Inherit the Wind, this courtroom drama, in which a passionate attorney tries to get Judas released from Hell, is lively, sloppy, sentimental, shocking, earnest, patronising – in short, it is utterly American, a big shaggy dog of a play that you want simultaneously to pat on the head and to push to the floor as it tries to climb into your lap.

The play is set in Purgatory, now a colony of the US, where an Irish-Romanian-American woman presents Judas's case. She and the Egyptian prosecutor interrogate, among others, Freud, Pilate, Mother Teresa, and the Devil.

The idea of such confrontations is hardly novel – with a lower-budget production than Rupert Goold's, we might be watching a play at a broad-minded Christian secondary school. The other difference is the obscenity. There are many good wisecracks, but, too often, when Stephen Adly Guirgis's characters aren't swearing to get a laugh, they're behaving childishly or telling Bible stories with slang and anachronism.

While the sewer vocabulary and religious irreverence bar the show from mainstream American TV, the easy humour fits right in, as does the emphasis on love. The play begins with an anguished address from Judas's mother, who says she knows her baby can't belong in Hell because she loved him so much; it ends with a speech from a husband who regrets his adultery so that we can, you know, relate to the betrayal thing. The theme may ostensibly be question and challenge, but the most prevalent feeling, along with impatience at the three-hour length, is the playwright's self-indulgence.

With the exception of Susan Lynch's shrill, lip-curling defender, the actors all deserve a niche in acting heaven. Mark Lockyer's sycophant prosecutor; Gawn Grainger's dignified and bitter Caiaphas; Douglas Henshall's contemptuous Satan; John Macmillan's powerfully understated Simon the Zealot – all turn the often watery dialogue into vintage Pauillac.

'Judas Iscariot' to 10 May (020-7359 4404)

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