I’ve always been drawn to plays with enigmatic titles. Some writers have a particular flair for this, Philip Ridley being easily the best (Pitchfork Disney, Mercury Fur, Piranha Heights). The Royal Exchange has some form in this area; I got excited over the premieres of the intriguingly named Pretend You Have Big Buildings and Ghost Train Tattoo: sadly, both of these plays were dreadful, and have long been forgotten (I still get PTSD flashbacks about the latter).
Will Electric Rosary fare any better? Manchester based writer Tim Foley won the 2017 Judges’ Award in the Bruntwood Competition. It’s certainly one of the better recipients in the history of this checkered prize; a bold, frustrating and occasionally brilliant comedy about the clash between spirituality and technology.
Behind the crumbling walls of their convent, the Sisters of St Grace are dwindling in numbers. Divine inspiration is running low, and a council-funded robot-nun (expertly played by Breffni Holahan) has just been invited to join their convent. The robot has many practical skills, including a unique way of mopping floors with maximum efficiency. The youngest nun views the robot as a blessing – maybe a friend. The others slowly come to see the robot as a nuisance. But as Sister Constance (Olwen May) perceptively observes, the robot isn’t the problem, merely the wrong solution. A group of anti-technology protesters don’t share her philosophical point of view, and plan to invade the convent, to destroy the creature. Very Frankenstein.
This is the weakest strand of Electric Rosary. Technology rebellion requires more than some random, off stage shouting to convince; it’s a bit sketchy, and slightly dilutes the climax (I said slightly). Yandass Ndlovu plays the one sole protester; a few extra bodies might have added some oomph to this part of the story. Similarly, the idea of a robot doing a self upgrade, and developing a higher consciousness feels hackneyed, and has been done to death in numerous science fiction films (like Bicentennial Man with Robin Williams playing a robot who develops ‘feelings.’) The contributions of Designer Charlotte Espiner, and Lighting Designer, Simisola Lucia Majekodunmi at least make these scenes visually interesting. Director, Jaz Woodcock-Stewart keeps events moving at a nice, brisk pace.
Playing the nuns are Suzette Llewellyn, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel, Olwen May and Jo Mousley (as fussy, controlling Elizabeth). Foley has a gift for barbed dialogue, and the best scenes are those between Sisters Constance and Elizabeth, which have a real bite. Constance is ill and suffering a crisis of faith. As she says to the robot: ‘You’re a void and so am I. I don’t believe in anything anymore.’ The secret weapon of Electric Rosary is Olwen May, a terrific actress I’ve always admired, and who has worked steadily across various platforms since the early nineties: I have fond memories of her work with site specific company IOU during this period (particularly the show Distance No Object). As Constance, she’s totally compelling, and provides the emotional centre of the play. The Manchester Theatre Awards are sadly gone but if they were still here, May would have been an easy ‘Best Actress’ contender for this performance.
Electric Rosary isn’t perfect but it’s certainly refreshing, and a rare example of science fiction theatre – a niche genre if ever there was. A lot of writers have too few ideas; Foley has too many. This is less a criticism, more a marker post signalling the arrival of a pleasantly off the wall talent. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Electric Rosary by Tim Foley is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 23 April to 14 May 2022.