Let’s start this review off with a quote “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” If you aren’t sure where this is from I will let you know at the end of the review. However, this quote get’s nicely to the central crux of Keith Bunin’s play The Busy World is Hushed which is having its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre.
Hannah (Kazia Pelka) is a happy Episcopalian minister and widow. She is working on a book about a recently discovered gospel which may predate the ‘famous four’ – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and, if the dates work out correctly, may have been written just after the death of Jesus. Like many academic types, Hannah is really enthralled by her work but dreads the thought of writing it out, so she is interviewing Brandt (Mateo Oxley) for the position of ghostwriter to put her thought into words on the printed page. Brandt has troubles of his own. A lapsed Christian – mainly due to the various churches stance on him as a gay man – he is dealing with his father’s recently diagnosed cancer, so is very happy when Hannah offers him the job and he has something tangible to occupy his waking thoughts. Unfortunately, also about to occupy Brandt’s thoughts is the third member of this trinity, Hanna’s son Thomas (Michael James). Thomas is twenty-six and drifting through life. He doesn’t stick at anything and has a very tempestuous relationship with his mother and the effects of his dead father. Three people, trying to live their lives in a good way but masking their inner feelings with faith, denial and rebellion.
The Busy World is Hushed is really two plays in one. In the first, Keith Bunin has written a fascinating theological discussion which pits the faithful against the non-believer using ruthless logic and some cruelty on occasion on both sides to get their point across. Whilst Hanna is a devout believer in God and all his works, she is also wise to the realities of religion and religious history. As she says, in a moment of surprising honesty – “The Bible is a self-contradictory, haphazardly edited compilation,” I have to admit, I could have happily followed – or even joined in – the theological debate with gusto. The second part of the story is a mother trying to do the right thing for her son who believes he doesn’t want her help, with a friend caught slap bang in the middle. This was not quite as well written I felt but having said that my feelings towards Thomas changed completely between Acts I and II. Initially, I quite liked the character. OK he was a little eccentric and his game of ‘go off’ sounded crazy but he was generally not bad. However, by the end of Act II, I actually found myself disliking him immensely and really resenting the way he treated those around him.
Which brings me to the acting. Whilst both Mateo and Michael produced extremely good, performances as Brandt and Thomas making them both pretty believable as people, there was some minor issue with word stumbling and accent wandering from Kazla. Having said that, there was a real fire in her performance that made Hannah a very formidable lady. Marco Turcich’s New York apartment set was very impressive and, when I first arrived it took me a few seconds to realise that there wasn’t a real leaded window in the Finborough at that point. I also liked the little touches of the staging – so essential when the audience is very close. For example, When Thomas opens his father’s bible and talks about the annotations in it, you can see where someone has gone through and marked certain passages with a highlighter. And when Brandt switches on his laptop to work, the screen is lit up. These things are easy to miss but add a real level of authenticity to the story so congratulations to Director Paul Higgins for thinking about the more pedantic members of his audience.
Finally, whilst I enjoyed The Busy World is Hushed I do think it tried to do a little too much. The human story felt a little unbelievable at times whilst the theological side was absolutely fascinating. As all good writing should, the highly emotional second act really took me by surprise and the final very powerful scene was a complete shock that thinking back now, seems just right. A fascinating play that definitely deserves to be seen.
By the way, the quote at the start of this review was from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.
Review by Terry Eastham
The European premiere of a new play by the acclaimed American playwright Keith Bunin in his UK debut, The Busy World is Hushed.
Hannah, a widowed Minister and Bible scholar, finds her faith at odds with that of her long estranged gay son, Thomas. She has recently hired an inquisitive young writer, Brandt, to assist with her book about a newly discovered manuscript that appears to be a lost gospel, one that may predate those in the Bible itself. As she notices the chemistry brewing between Brandt and her son, she decides to risk all on an unconventional opportunity for reconciliation that has unexpected consequences for all three of them.
Originally premiered at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, The Busy World is Hushed examines – with wisdom, humour and insight – the contradictions we find in our faith, our families and ourselves…
Founding Artistic Director of Theatre503, and 2017 OffWestEnd Award winner, Paul Higgins returns to direct at the Finborough Theatre.
Friday, 6 October – Saturday, 25 November 2017