Lloyd Evans

Why the Royal Court is theatre’s answer to Islamic State

Plus: there’s gold in David Baddiel’s new play at Soho Theatre

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On Bear Ridge

Royal Court Theatre, until 23 November

God’s Dice

Soho Theatre, until 30 November

The Royal Court is the theatre’s answer to Islamic State, a conspiracy of nihilists fascinated with death, supported by groups of self-flagellating puritans, and committed to inflicting pain on all who stray into its orbit. The latest fatwa from Sloane Square concerns the imminent demise of the Welsh language — an emergency for which there seems to be scant evidence. On Bear Ridge by Ed Thomas proclaims its amateurish origins with stage directions that belong in Pseuds Corner. ‘Spindly winter branches dance on a fading sign,’ is Thomas’s attempt to create a ghostly mood. The setting is a derelict village shop where ‘ancient bluebottles cling to death on sticky brown fly-catching strips’.

Britain has been struck by some unexplained apocalypse, perhaps a war, which has left a few survivors scratching a perilous living in ‘a mountain wilderness’ somewhere in Wales. The shop-owner is a wittering bumpkin, John Daniel, who lives with his gormless wife, Noni, in the shattered ruins of a cottage overlooking a landscape of chunky grey boulders. This is Snowdonia, clearly. Yet the characters use south Wales accents. Come on, chaps. Get the basics right.

A visit from a displaced captain prompts long passages of chit-chat and reminiscence. Rhys Ifans works hard to give John Daniel a certain dippy charm and he succeeds. Some of his Pythonesque word-play would suit a TV sketch-show but without any narrative thrust or movement the verbal effects become stodgy and stagey. The characters keep uttering the words, ‘Tomb Shonkin’, which few play-goers will recognise as the Welsh name, Twm Siencyn. After an hour we learn that ‘Tomb Shonkin’ is the only son of Noni and John Daniel and that he met a gruesome end in some faraway city. This disaster forced his grieving parents to take a curious decision about ‘the old tongue’, as they call Welsh. But why exactly? Purely because the play needs some ponderous symbolic moment with which to crown itself.

The script has a problem which any competent editor could identify. The dual narrative involves an external disaster (the mysterious apocalypse), and an internal crisis (the death of Twm Siencyn). This is the dramatic equivalent of a tautology. One calamity is enough. Two is too many. It’s strange that neither the Court, nor Wales’s National Theatre which commissioned the script, was able to spot this elementary blunder and to ask a professional to correct it. But there’s a silver lining here. By staging a play about a fictional threat to an ancient Celtic language, the Court seems to be hinting that it has run out of man-made problems with which to terrorise its customers. What a relief.

God’s Dice by David Baddiel is a romcom about advanced physics and alternative universes. Henry, a brilliant but unsuccessful lecturer, is married to Virginia, a bestselling writer who circles the globe giving talks to stadiums full of adoring fans. One of Henry’s young pupils, a Christian named Edie, quizzes him about Christ’s miracles and asks if physics could explain some of the stunts pulled by the Messiah in the New Testament. The pair establish a nerdy friendship based on a mutual interest in science and religion. Jealous Virginia demands to know if the couple are lovers. No, insists Henry. Virginia accepts his honesty. This may be true to life but it’s very bad news for the play.

A gutsier writer would have slung Henry and Edie into bed straightaway, and examined their developing characters as they grappled with the emotional fall-out. But Baddiel leaves them in dry-dock. Two possible reasons. First, a reluctance to turn Henry into a seedy, ogling Weinstein. Second, a fear that Alan Davies, the ubiquitous panel-show teddy-bear who plays Henry, might have turned down the role of a paunchy sex-pest. However, Baddiel, for all his egalitarian credentials, evidently finds the idea of a nubile brainbox like Edie irresistibly sexy. So he creates a second middle-aged lothario, Tim, whose clumsy attempts at seduction are also rejected. This leaves Edie perched at the side of the drama like an unclaimed Magimix at a village tombola. In the second half, Henry writes a bestselling book that examines Christ’s miracles from a scientific viewpoint. This leads to some amusing but maddeningly good-tempered banter between Henry and Virginia, who is now his rival. And Henry’s success turns him into a god-like hero to whom strangers genuflect in the street. Or does it? This twist, like the stalled Henry/Edie fling, is not pursued as punchily as it might have been.

God’s Dice deals with a topic that would appeal to millions like me who hunger to understand theoretical physics. A drama that offered glimpses into its mysteries while satisfying the basic need for complex characters and gripping storylines would work brilliantly on TV. There’s gold here but it needs a fresh team of prospectors to dig it out.