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Pilgrims, Etcetera Theatre

Sarah Page

Directed by Kevin Williams
Pros: A play about a recent event is always interesting, and tying it in with a smaller, personal story is a masterstroke.
Cons: It could be argued that at one point in the play, things are overwrought, but then again with a lot of families, life can be like that – and then some!
Our Verdict: A strong play that has well-rounded characters that are emotionally engaging. Time zips by!
Credit: Dan Barry
If you watch as many plays as I do, beyond all the critique and analysis, you realise they all boil down to one thing – is the play you’re watching ‘hard work’ or is it a delight to watch? Thankfully Pilgrims falls very much into the latter category.
Pilgrims is set on 18th September 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI was due to appear in Hyde Park. The play begins with single mother Ruth trying to rally her family together to make the trip to central London. Will, her son – who has obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies – is even more nervous about this change of routine and Beth, his sister, is reticent to go as her non-Catholic boyfriend is due to drop in later. Ruth’s father also shows up, but like any storm, his presence upsets what little equilibrium there is in the household.
Pilgrims was written by Sarah Page, one of the participants of the Royal Court’s Studio Writers group and it shows in the quality of her writing. Set in real time, the play runs for an hour – just like 24, but alas, without Jack Bauer! The set is minimal, but effective. To be honest, you’ll end up watching the characters so intently, your peripheral gaze only notices the essentials such as doors and furniture.
Ruth, played by Carol Starks, gives a nuanced performance as the matriarch who is strong and resolute, yet whose steadfastness is also a liability. Unlike a reed that is able to bend with the wind of change, she comes unstuck and doesn’t have anything to anchor her uncertainty. Henry Gilbert, who plays Will, manages to convey the character’s OCD traits without resorting to lazy, ‘Rain Man’ overacting. 
Stephanie Hyam who plays Ruth’s daughter, gives Beth a touch of vulnerability beneath her bluster, clearly hinting at other issues bubbling beneath the surface. The ebb-and-flow of exchanges between Beth and her brother are well-observed and amusing. As for her boyfriend, Jarir (played by Dinarte Gouveia), his easy-going attitude towards relationships and religion are a nice counterpoint to the family’s highly-strung disposition. The little scene he shares with Ruth, after things calm down briefly, is particularly excellent.
Harold the grandfather (played by Nick Simons) is a man of contradictions. He gives his own daughter a hard time for not being strict with Beth, yet he is quite congenial to his granddaughter. He also berates ‘J’ behind his back for his ‘pick’n’mix’ approach to religious beliefs, yet voices his own idiosyncratic views. Had the play ran longer than an hour, it would have been nice to see more of Harold’s past fleshed out.
I did think at one point that even with her strict sense of values, it wouldn’t be totally realistic for Ruth to criticise everything Beth said and did. However, I’ve seen family members in the past do a similar thing, so I know it’s totally plausible. In any case, Carol Starks plays everything with conviction and I totally believed in the enormity of the impact of family revelations on her mind. For such a short play, Pilgrims packs a lot of issues into 60 minutes. Apart from intergenerational friction and relationships between people of different cultural backgrounds, how hard is it for a Catholic family to keep faith in the 21st century? Do we choose what we believe or does it choose us? On the basis of this play, Sarah Page looks to be a playwright of promise, and the director and cast are commended for bringing her vision to life.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Pilgrims runs at Etcetera Theatre until 9th June 2013.
Box Office: 020 7482 4857 or book online at http://www.etceteratheatre.com/

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