Doubt: gripping, provocative, powerful drama on the Chichester stage

Doubt: A Parable, Chichester Festival Theatre, until February 5.

Doubt: Sam Spruell and Monica Dolan-   Photo Johan Persson
Doubt: Sam Spruell and Monica Dolan- Photo Johan Persson

In this production, Doubt: A Parable proves the very best kind of play: the kind that leaves you talking about it all the way home.

The super-starry film version some years ago was completely unmemorable. On the stage, the piece instantly grips, grabs throughout and then refuses to leave you – thanks, of course, to the writing, but thanks here to two superb central performances from Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Sam Spruell as Father Brendan Flynn.

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We are in the fictional St Nicholas Church School in mid-60s New York in John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play.

Sister Aloysius is the starchy straight-down-the-line no-nonsense principal whose approach is to squeeze out enthusiasm and innocence in her staff, an approach that brooks absolutely no ambiguity of any kind – an approach born of a genuine belief that this is how you protect the children in your care.

Opening the piece by extolling doubt, Flynn is the polar opposite, prizing compassion and warmth above unbending rules; he’s convinced that openness and friendliness are the way ahead; that keeping your distance is simply wrong.

The clash between the two is inevitable – fuelled by Sister Aloysius’ sudden absolute conviction that Flynn has acted with impropriety towards one of the boys.

It’s a conviction untroubled by her lack of evidence, and initially all your sympathies are with Flynn. But then it twists… and then it twists again.

This was a play which should have happened last year. It has probably found a much better moment now in our fevered partygate days. We are in an era of emphatic denial which then starts to crumble. The parallels are there – though obviously it would be wrong to take them too far.

The point for Sister Aloysius is simply that she knows. Or does she? We certainly can’t and that’s the beauty of the play – embodied in those two central performances which are delivered with supreme skill.

Rebecca Scroggs as Mrs Muller and Jessica Rhodes as Sister James are terrific too in the more peripheral parts, both there to underline the sheer complexity of what is unfurling. Black can clash with white, but in the middle there are endless shades of grey.

Lia Williams directs it all superbly on a sparse and effective set. This is fine theatre which resonates, demands a response, creates conversation and just niggles and niggles away.

Chichester’s own production has given the theatre a great start to 2022.