‘Mass Appeal’ transforms the unappealing into captivating theatre

By Lesley Stones 15 February 2011

The church - especially the Catholic church, with its elaborate costumes often striving to disguise a multitude of sins - has always been good for a laugh, although often in a tragicomic way. “Mass Appeal” sounds like the title of a perfect farce, but LESLEY STONES found this to be a cerebral, intelligently witty play that exposes the undeniably funny hypocrisies that riddle the religious world.

It stars Graham Hopkins, who just gets better with each passing year – and that’s saying something, because he’s been excellent since the beginning. Hopkins plays an entrenched Irish priest, Father Farley, whose desire to be loved and needed by his flock sees him telling them what they want to hear, dumbing down the message to avoid upsetting anyone with messy threats of fire and brimstone. He’s a pragmatist, bending the truth when it will make life easier, failing to question if the answers are uncomfortable.

His wine-enhanced complacency is disrupted by the passionate and rebellious young trainee priest, Mark Dolson. Impetuous, Dolson still believes in all those quaintly honourable things like honesty and challenging church authorities who make decisions of which God himself may disapprove. Clyde Berning is striking as a strong yet vulnerable Dolson, adrift in a world where politics and prejudices take precedence over the will of God.

Together Hopkins and Berning give compelling, crackling performances, verbally jousting as they move from mutual antipathy to trust along a path that passes through humour, sadness and regret. Naturally they both learn from each other, and, more importantly, learn about themselves.

Hopkins delivers some brilliantly acerbic one-liners in this play by Bill C Davis. “Mass Appeal” was one of the earliest plays by the prolific playwright, and is partly his own story drawn from his Catholic education. Davis updated the play in 2000 to ensure it remained relevant today.

The stage set by Jannie Swanepoel neatly tucks a pulpit into the corner, allowing the lights to dim and focus on the priest as action switches from Father Farley’s office to the church, and we become the congregation.

The clever script crackles with humour, exposing flaws in the religious system through wit and wisdom. The central question is whether Dawson is a suitable candidate for priesthood, given that his attitudes and actions would shake up a comfortable hierarchy and upset a congregation seeking reassurance, not uncomfortable challenges.

“Mass Appeal” reminds us of the frailties and foibles of human nature. You’ll leave the theatre laughing, heaping praise on the performers, and, if you’re a heathen like me, being grateful not to be going to church on Sunday to witness how manipulative and damaged even men of the cloth can be. DM

“Mass Appeal” runs at Montecasino Theatre until 27 March.

Read more of Lesley’s writing at her great website.


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