George Jacob Holyoake, a pioneer in the British secularism movement, was the last man ever to be tried and sentenced for blasphemy in the UK. After an engagement in Cheltenham in 1842, the travelling lecturer and teacher found himself the subject of a damning newspaper article that caught authorities’ attention. John Osborne fictionalised the fiery young man’s story in a 1960 television drama, now largely forgotten in the wake of his popular plays. Production company Proud Haddock has resurrected the script, an hour-long tirade against religion and the establishment, in an excellently performed and staged production. A Subject of Scandal and Concern lacks finesse, though. It choppily covers a lengthy time period and all of the characters, save for Holyoake, are underwritten and underused. The story is engaging despite Osborne’s plot structure, and Jamie Muscato is a magnetic Holyoake that redeems this historical relic.
After a brief narrative monologue that is largely unnecessary, a moving scene between Holyoake and his wife indicates this is going to be a domestic poverty-drama. The story goes a completely different direction however, instead focusing solely on Holyoake’s subsequent speech, arrest, trial and imprisonment. With moving courtroom scenes and a tenacious spirit, the character is well-written and detailed. The rest of the characters frustratingly lack his depth and stage time, each only appearing a few times, if that. Multi-rolling gives the actors plenty to do, but this would be a far more interesting play if Holyoake had more substantial characters to engage with. There isn’t much in terms of a journey for any of the roles, instead Osborne uses the narrative to make a strong statement against organised religion and its death grip on Western society. This is agit-prop rather than effective storytelling, and a less able cast would make this a boring play indeed.
Jamie Muscato does a fantastic job with Holyoake, particularly in the courtroom scenes, and the rest of the cast are a smooth ensemble of devout resistance against him. Muscato’s flawless embodiment of his character’s tenacity and struggle is a masterclass in detailed characterisation. It’s a shame there isn’t enough opportunity for the other actors to showcase their ability in the same way, though there work is still very good. Their commitment to their characters is the saving grace of this production.
Philip Lindley’s set is a simple collection of slatted boxes of varying sizes and shapes that cleverly evoke a kitchen, a courtroom, a prison, and the club where Holyoake speaks. Their rearrangement is simply choreographed by director Jimmy Walters and choreographer Ste Clough, but there is missed potential for more poetic stylisation evoking Holyoake’s fight against the society that is threatened by his godlessness.
Though the generally unknown A Subject of Scandal and Concern disappointingly reinforced why it isn’t more frequently produced, Walters’ staging and the cast’s performances prevent this production from being flat and dull. It’s quite the opposite, and worth seeing for the excellent, intense performances in an intimate venue.
A Subject of Scandal and Concern runs through 11 June.
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