REVIEW: Agnes Of God, UpperCut Theatre, Arundel Jailhouse

Based on the true story of a young Catholic nun shockingly found bleeding with a dead baby by her side, John Pielmeier’s intense and challenging play asks some disturbing and probing questions.

Have we created a world so relentlessly logical that we can no longer contemplate the miraculous (the young nun claims immaculate conception and virgin birth)? What is the nature of madness? What might be the hidden agendas and buried motivations of those whose job it is to make sense of these events? And because it asks more questions than it neatly answers, it leaves a lot for the audience to talk about on the way home.

But Agnes of God is play about the lives of three women, not a dramatised debate and in each case, we get depth, complexity and, in the time at the dramatist’s disposal, a remarkable quantity of gradually revealed back-story.

Under the very experienced directorial hand of Pennie Billinghurst, three fine performances emerged in Uppercut Theatre’s production at Arunde . I have first to pay massive tribute to Liv Collins (Agnes, the young nun) who, at only 17 years of age, gave a riveting, spellbinding performance that might be the envy of many an older and more experienced actress . She had perfect command of voice, pace and timing, intensely watchable expression and movement and a chameleon ability to switch between girlish innocence, ethereal spirituality, profound anger and deep inner agony. We shall see a lot more of this remarkable young actress.

Sandee Lewis as Mother Superior Miriam Ruth also gave a powerful and sharply focused portrayal of a woman torn between the demands of her role, her own natural human sympathies and the secrets she desperately wanted to keep, the reputations she wanted to protect. Toughly argumentative at one moment, broken and vulnerable at another, this was another finely realised performance.

Tonya James as the court-appointed psychiatrist had a role with a differently written dynamic : to prevent her just being there to ask questions , her examinations of Agnes – sometimes softly sympathetic, sometimes aggressively forceful – were alternated with clashes over action and interpretation with the Mother Superior and monologues in which she revealed her own troubles and anxieties . Again , a part demanding – and getting – a rounded performance.

And to hear parts of the Canticles of Ecstasy by the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen was just icing on the cake. A superb evening of edgy, challenging theatre.

Paul Ward