Pros: Strong and convincing performances from the lead actors.
Cons: Poor and crude handling of a brutal scene.
The Bedford pub in Balham (now home to the deceptively named Theatre N16) is a sprawling mansion of pub theatre. With every staircase comes a new series of rooms hosting plays and comedies – it’s surprising how many ventures can take place in just one venue. When I go to review Theatre N16’s I’m Not Jesus Christ by Maria Manolescu it’s a hot and muggy day and I’m relieved to find myself in a cool, dark room in the attic of the building to watch the show.
The play is set in a dark, dank garage and this cave of a room is the perfect venue. The stage is scarce; a few religious paintings serve as a backdrop whilst the shell of a car adds to the aura and story. Occasionally, tube lights flicker into life to provide a brighter stage for moments when time stands still, an effective way of separating out scenes in the eccentric world of I’m Not Jesus Christ.
The story is admittedly a strange one on the surface but it’s also one that provides a surprising amount of depth regarding the themes of religious mania, post-traumatic stress disorder, child abuse and the bizarre ways in which unconditional love can manifest itself.
The play opens with the twelfth birthday of Mihai who lives in poverty in a Romanian garage with his extremely insular mother, Maria. Mihai has been raised in secrecy for years with limited contact with the outside world because his mother devoutly believes he is Jesus Christ and is training him for when he begins to perform miracles. Totally normal, right? Mihai, however, would rather be his idol: Michael Schumacher.
Mihai unconsciously yearns for the outside world and, in a misguided attempt at kindness, invites a local prostitute into his home. What follows is a surreal adventure into desperation and delusion that can only end in tragedy.
There’s a lot for the actors to deliver in such a short time frame but they do very well with it. Izabella Urbanowicz is great as Maria; messy haired, panicked and unable to look reality in the eye, she’s believable as a parent who is extremely misguided but genuinely full of love for her child. Andrei Costin is tremendous as Mihai. It’s rare to see an adult actor bring such genuine life and believability to the role of a child but Costin is completely convincing.
Where the production struggles is with bringing to life some crucial storylines. Insight into Maria’s mania is provided in scenes where the truth behind the stories Mihai is told by his mother are played out. This is a smart tactic and necessary for understanding why Maria has raised her child in such an extreme way but the execution of the show’s rape scene should have a trigger warning attached and is handled in an extremely crude way given the emotional trauma of the subject matter.
I’m Not Jesus Christ is an entertaining production but it does lack plausibility and leaves a few questions unanswered, not least being how an isolated child with no contact with the outside world and no television knows about Michael Schumacher. Likewise, it is unclear how far Mihai’s imagination stretches and whether he can in fact pause time and if so, if his mother is actually right in her beliefs.
All questions aside, I’m Not Jesus Christ is a unique piece of theatre and is worth attending for the fine performances of Izabella Urbanowicz and Andrei Costin. As you delve into the chilling world of Mihai and Maria’s dark garage home, there’s plenty of dark humour to enjoy.
Author: Maria Manolescu
Director: Melissa Dunne
Producer: Cristina Catalina
Box Office: 07969 138 899
Booking Link: http://www.theatren16.co.uk/#!blank/g8rcr
Booking Until: 26 May 2016