Review: Pearly Gates: A Kafkaesque Romcom in Heaven

Riona Millar 24 October 2019

This piece of new writing from Archie Williams and Calum Macleod makes its dungbeetling debut as an ADC Late…

I think this show might have put me off yo-yos for life.

We start as confused as the show’s protagonist, in the waiting room for Heaven. A man with a knife in his back is having difficulties getting through security, because it qualifies as an earthly possession – which are contraband. Our protagonist, Will (played by Anna Trowby) tries to engage his waiting room companions in discussion to work out exactly where they are: one tells him that he’s been there for ages, and sticks around for duty-free; the other just screams. That effectively sets the tone of the whole show.

As with any late show at the ADC, one needs to be fairly minimal with staging. Pearly Gates is perhaps a little ambitious in its concepts, leading to some awkward set change blackouts where furniture is hauled offstage, the only light the odd gleam of a tinfoil halo. You can absolutely see where it wanted to be going, and the efforts are admirable despite the limitations placed by the timeslot; clouds are carried on and offstage in a  neoclassical depiction of heaven, as it would be too disruptive to have them flown in – somehow I almost prefer this low-budget version of heaven vibe that it creates. Heaven as a series of offices is also suitably bland, helped along by making a filing cabinet a key staple in the show’s set.

The plot is, at best, tangential: Will’s mission is to redeem himself in a seven day trial period in heaven, or face eternal damnation or some pretty miserable reincarnation options. Think the first season of The Good Place, but with more scatological humour: if he cannot make a decent appeal that he deserves to be in heaven, Will has the choice to be damned, or become a dungbeetle in the 14th century Sahara, a strain of gonorrhoea or a Nivea lab rat.

We follow his journey through Heaven, trying to retrace the passage of his life through the people that were important to him, as well as making new connections along the way. Joseph Folley is fantastic as Dante (yes, that Dante), who takes Will, along with his new friends Ethan and Monica (Kit Livsey and Alayo Akinkugbe), on a tour of heaven. Keep an eye out for the pizza jokes. We also encounter Will’s mother, his former wife, and, in a brilliantly surreal moment that harks back to an earlier joke about who’s actually made it to Heaven, Nick Clegg (pursued by an angry mob).

Image credit: Calum Macleod

In his desperation, Will returns to Moira the Admin Angel (Sophie Brawn) who first greeted us at the entrance to Heaven; she breaks all the protocols and provides Will with information about his life. He discovers that a lost love has made the decision to become a dungbeetle, and yet that he cannot pursue her – there are no more 14th century dungbeetles in need of souls. So begins his quest to make amends, encountering an incredibly stressed out Saint Peter – who blames the Protestants for giving him so much paperwork – and an overwhelmingly ennuied Ethan and Monica, playing with yo-yos they’ve been practising with for decades, who accidentally drank from a river that extends time in eternity by an enormous amount. As a result, they’re more than happy to help Will in his pursuit of happiness, even if it’s in the form of becoming a dungbeetle. Kafka could roll in his grave…

Sophie Scott’s performance as “Kate the Purgatorial Prankster” is one of the highlights of the show: from “the Haunting Room”, one can make ghostly visitations to Earth and, if you’re Kate, cause general chaos. The sheer joy that she takes in scaring humans shitless is wonderful to see, and there’s an excellent Ghostbusters bit – always important in any consideration of mortality.

Image credit: Calum Macleod

The show does at times feel quite fragmentary, scenes feeling more like only lightly-connected sketches rather than a coherent whole, but it fits with the feeling that we’re sharing in Will’s amnesia and panic to preserve himself in the hereafter. Scenes like Scott’s prankster tales, the rant about Protestantism from Saint Peter, a video montage on dung beetle reproduction efforts, the Nick Clegg chase or Sam Drysdale’s brilliant appearance as John Donne chanting “Donne-Donne-Donne-Donne-Donne-Donne” in what I think was an approximation of the Star Wars theme (Dante explains that he sort of cracked and now, Pokemon-like, can only say his name) ostensibly fit within the broader scope of the play but have an absurdist brilliance on their own.

Ultimately I think a stronger link between scenes like these, or an acceptance of surrealist abstraction without any real plot beyond a protagonist’s meandering, would be enough to really tighten the show up and bring it to the highest level it deserves to be at. For a first run, however, at least it was a bloody good laugh, and is the first show to date with multiple jokes about Wycliffian Lollards – which makes it a good ‘un in my book.


3 stars.