Papal whodunit lacks teeth

David Suchet leads the cast in The Last Confession.


The Last Confession

By Roger Crane

2.5 stars

His Majesty's Theatre

Review: David Zampatti

The sudden death of the first Pope John Paul, Cardinal Albino Luciani, in September 1978 left a disquieting aftertaste. An apparently healthy man of 65, barely a month into his papacy, he died in contradictory circumstances while Vatican scandals lurked in the shadows.

After a whodunit? This could be a doozy.

Trouble is, The Last Confession is an awfully convoluted one, constructed around real, well-known, figures of the recent past. That gives its writer, Roger Crane, a lot of work to do, and precious little historical wriggle room in which to do it.

I've never seen - heard is more accurate - a play with so much exposition. The weight of it nearly crushes the life out of the drama. It's not helped by a big cast, mostly men in scarlet cassocks. I half expected Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition to burst in at any moment.

The result is a someone-might- have-dunit; the play's conspiracy theory goes no further than implying that there might have been one. Various cardinals with an axe to grind grumble in Vatican corridors but we are given no real evidence that any or all of them gave the unfortunate John Paul the chop, or even that any chop was given.

All of which is frustrating for the play's detective, the energetic Cardinal Giovanni Benelli. As Crane's story goes, at least, he has passed on the chance to ascend the papal throne in favour of the modest, good-humoured Luciani (the characterisation overtly emphasises Luciani's similarities to the popular qualities of the current pontiff) and is about to accept the position of Vatican Secretary of State when his new boss is found dead in the papal apartment.

Benelli smells a rat and determines to get to the bottom of the Pope's death. What follows is obfuscation from some potentially culpable cardinals, much outrage and anguish from Benelli, but nothing even remotely resembling a denouement.

We leave the theatre no wiser than when we arrived.

Denouement is, of course, the middle name of the actor playing the inquisitive cardinal, the much-admired David Suchet. Over 25 years, while his detective Hercule Poirot unfailingly nailed his murderer, Suchet unfailingly nailed his Poirot. As Augustus Melmotte, in the BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Suchet gave one of the great performances of television.

He's an assiduous artist and a charismatic performer, and he has put all his commitment and attention to detail into his Benelli but the part is inconsistent, one-dimensional and bombastic, and often lets the actor down.

The same could be said of most of the supporting characters. The exceptions are the two popes, John Paul I (Richard O'Callaghan) and Paul VI (Donald Douglas). O'Callaghan, in particular, brings a sweetness and calm strength to his pontiff, and even though he too has some hurdles to overcome - a chance encounter with a "common man", a Vatican gardener, was almost too much to bear - you see him retire to what turns out to be his death bed with some regret.

It's handsome to look at, and has a certain, albeit probably spurious, behind-the-scenes fascination but The Last Confession really needs some twists to get you to the edge of your seat, and some page-turning propulsion to keep you there.

Like an Agatha Christie.

The Last Confession runs until August 16.