In these tentative, post-lockdown times, many theatre venues tend to programme safe, obvious, well-known shows, those crowd-pleasers that will guarantee them an audience. It’s understandable, but that’s all the more reason to applaud Manchester’s Royal Exchange for throwing its weight behind Electric Rosary by Tim Foley, which is original – as in, highly. But it’s worth it, because Electric Rosary is quite something.
It’s set at St Grace’s Convent during the run-up to Easter in the near future. Having recently lost their Mother Superior, the nuns are forced to consider their next move, and relations between them are not always as harmonious as their singing at Vespers. Into this tumult is thrown an unexpected new element – Mary (Breffni Holahan), an android nun, who’s great at menial tasks like mopping the floor but far less adept at things like praying and believing. Meanwhile, a lurking group calling themselves Luddites are on the warpath about the rise of robots in society. Basically, the cat is well and truly among the pigeons.
With an (all-female) cast of six, Electric Rosary has space to allow the various characters to establish themselves and develop fully. Saroja-Lily Ratnavel stands out as Sister Theresa, lending a rather gawky heart and soul to the group. As the synthetic Sister Mary, Holahan is terrific, delivering a memorably odd, very physical performance. It might be a gift of a role, but in the wrong hands the whole show could fall apart. Holahan succeeds in breathing life and charm into the machine – all of which is thematically bob-on, in fact.
By its very nature, the play touches on some almighty themes – faith, facing the future, the march of technology, even the very nature of existence – but in the delivery, its meditations on these topics are never earnest or clumsy. There are well-executed moments of high drama, but overall there’s a canny lightness of touch. Most strikingly, it’s often really, really funny, and between them the cast mine this brilliantly.
There’s an admirable sense of economy to the entire production. Director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart keeps proceedings fussy and intimate, and Anna Clock’s sound design draws it power from being so measured and well-considered.
Yes, there’s perhaps the odd niggle. Towards the end of the first half, the narrative momentum starts to sag slightly. The staging is appropriately spartan (we are in a convent, after all) but the play’s climax could probably do with a shade more wow-factor ooomph to sell it properly. By and large though, Electric Rosary is an absolute treat: fresh, memorable, richly entertaining and genuinely thought-provoking. If you’re ready to go back to the theatre and you can handle something a bit different, it’s very much to be recommended.
Images by Helen Murray