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The Last Confession: A mystery that could have used an Agatha Christie touch

The Last Confession, a hit for the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2007, is now revived for a tour with an international cast.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Last Confession
Written by
Roger Crane
Genre
Play
Directed by
Jonathan Church
Actors
David Suchet
Venue
Royal Alexandra Theatre

Pope Francis, the current leader of the Catholic Church and occasional Rolling Stone cover boy, tweeted out this mini-encyclical on the morning after Vatican-set thriller The Last Confession opened in Toronto: "Inequality is the root of social evil."

With this new Pope sending out surprisingly economically and socially progressive signals daily, it's as good a time as any to look back at what happened to the last guy at the top to throw conservative Catholics into a tizzy.

Was John Paul I, the "smiling pope", killed for his attempts to open the windows of the Catholic Church (and to its finances)? He died just 33 days into his papacy in 1978 – and there have been persistent rumours that reactionary bureaucrats within the Vatican may have had something to do with his demise.

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The Last Confession, a hit for the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2007 now revived for a tour with an international cast, aims to mine these conspiracy theories for drama. It seemed like a must-Holy See based on the advance buzz, especially starring David Suchet a.k.a. television's Hercule Poirot as Cardinal Benelli, a behind-the-scenes power broker who eventually conducts an investigation into his friend John Paul I's death.

Unfortunately, first-time playwright Roger Crane doesn't have the plotting skills of an Agatha Christie – or, for that matter, a John Grisham or Dan Brown – to pull off a proper potboiler. His play is a clunker, especially in a long, slack first act that feels like a never-ending prologue – Murder on the Disoriented Milk Run.

It could nevertheless have been elevated by a Benelli with sufficient stage charisma, but Suchet's performance is a disappointment, too – shrunken physically, and overly aggressive verbally. He hits the same, staccato notes of self-righteous outrage for two hours – and when he finally gets a chance to play detective, his cross-examinations of church officials slips into parody, complete with heel-spinning and But-then-how-do-you-explain-this! finger-pointing.

Director Jonathan Church's production provides a very Protestant depiction of the seat of Catholicism – visually rather dull and exceedingly talky. The at-times comically enunciated performances are more concerned with ideas and positions being represented than showing cardinals and archbishops as people. The debate Crane has scripted isn't Shavian enough for that to excite, however – he is clearly on the liberal side of issues such as birth control, and only allows opposing opinions to be stated rather than argued.

To be fair, Crane's script does find momentum in the second act – and there are a few fine supporting performances. Richard O'Callaghan gives a wonderfully textured performance as John Paul I, stifled by bureaucracy in an age before a pope could simply tell the world what he thought via @Pontifex. From his character's initial reluctance to take power, to his eventual realization that he must wield it, O'Callaghan exudes a gentle grace that masks determination – and retains his dignity even when saddled with dialogue such as "I am what I am." (The last time that line was heard on the Royal Alex stage was in La Cage aux Folles.)

The scenes where the new pope interacts with the Roman Curia, notably Nigel Bennett's hard-nosed Cardinal Jean Villiot, have sparks. But almost every time Suchet is on stage, the play begins to feel creaky again. From set pieces moved matter-of-factly by visible stagehands to the star's hammy death scene at the end, this feels like old-fashioned theatre. I left feeling less that the Catholic Church needed to open its windows than that the Royal Alexandra did.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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