Review: The God Committee

Fred Upton 6 March 2022
Image Credit: Howard Theatre Downing College, Jonathan Powell

On a cold March night, I had made my way to the ever-elusive Howard Theatre, anticipating a play that I had been eager to see since I first heard about its concept: A dramatic story about ill conditioned healthcare and the fears of an austere response to human life from those unaffected. With a complex script of perfectly tailored chaos, overall, the play gives an enlightening and emotive epiphany of how far Cambridge theatre can really go.

Inspired by true events, The God Committee is a piece of new writing from the spectacular mind of Jonathan Powell, which delivers the different experiences of fortune’s ladder in a hospital, the patients that await treatment and the staff that work tirelessly with the politics of it all. The plot focusses on the central figure of Oliver – played by the incredibly talented Colin Hood. An old man in hospital, reminiscing about his life and troubles as he awaits treatment. The moments Oliver has with a young Emily (Harry Dixon-Spain), another patient at the hospital, create a masterfully made emotional backbone for the play. ‘The only thing worse than dying is being given hope’ says the disappointed old man. Oliver is given an ephemeral presence on the stage, sometimes in reality, sometimes trapped in his post-traumatic stress. But it is with the titular God Committee that the plot hinges on. With few resources and so many limitations, the hospital decides that only a certain few patients will receive their much-needed treatment.

When I was told the concept of this play would be on a small group of people playing God and deciding on the lives of others, I expected something along the lines of Twelve Angry Men, and honestly it possessed similar characterisations within the Committee. What I will say, though, is that the committee seemed to take a backseat to the plot, often focussing on the characters around the committee rather than the committee itself. However, this is made up for by the memorable moments of the members of the committee. The multi-role of Lucy Paget as both Mrs B and Oliver’s visions of his wife works for what both characters stand for. Moreover, the intriguing yet frightening Mr C, powerfully brought to life by Jenny Cyffin-Jones, sneers in sly subtleties until the well-earned climax of the play where they movingly intimidate the other characters with balanced dynamics like a perfectly coordinated tornado.

The abstract nature of the play invites us, the audience, into a world of confusion of intellectual thought. The stage is split, with one side having a bed and table of a medical ward; the emotional core of the setting, and the other with a desk, a computer and alcohol; the disconnected and cold perspective of the upper management. In the centre of the stage is the gap between both sides of this resonating plot, where characters like Oliver make their speeches and monologues, lost in an abstract place of absence from reality. All this was coupled with the unique use of pre-recorded soundbites of the sea, of the hospital and of the war. Without the need for set changes, the resounding echoes that ring in our ears make perfect transitional devices for a play that changes time and place so often despite physical constraints.

The script is well-rounded: Jonathan Powell’s style of writing and Yelena Persaud’s directing create a plot that keeps us hooked to the very end. Although, in hindsight, the two patients of Oliver and Emily seem to have very little effect on the plot, their exchanges give us much needed down time from the visceral politics of Fabrico and Kane. Ashley Cooper as Kane was brilliant with the dry wit pf someone who has had enough of caring for people. Elizabeth Kate Webber is excellent as the stern yet emotional foil to Kane, Fabrico, Able to show a doctor who has been pained from loss and so expresses their anger and emotion in their arguments with the dismissive Kane. With a great swathe of talent, including the patient Nightingale (Beck Walker), the bemused Mr. A (Tess Bottomley) and the foreboding voice of the Broadcaster (Isabel van Rhee), the production makes full use of its characters and what they can do in service to the themes and ideas. The moments when they are all on stage together for well organised dances and singing gives an evocative feel of something very much surreal.

The God Committee is importantly a play for those that want to be made uncomfortable by the hypocrisies and injustices of healthcare and human callousness. In the ornate Howard theatre, one would feel like they are watching something of godly proportions on stage. While pacing and direction could have had more focus, the script and performances are so well rounded that these flaws seem to be only minor. With such quotable and memorable moments to be dug into your mind, I was left astounded when everything came together to create a piece of theatre that I recommend to anyone, whether young or old.

4.5/5 stars.

The God Committee by Jonathan Powell is on in the Howard Theatre, Downing College, at 7:30 on the 6th March. Tickets available here: https://www.adcticketing.com/whats-on/play/the-god-committee