REVIEW: Electric Rosary, Royal Exchange, Manchester

IT has taken three years to bring Electric Rosary – winner of the Bruntwood Prize for new writing – to the stage of the Royal Exchange. The good news, it’s been well worth the wait. This eccentric, slightly off-kilter, thought-provoking play is both highly amusing and slightly disturbing.

Unique is a much-overused word but writer Tim Foley has produced something which is exactly that. The production is an amalgam of an old-fashioned character driven comedy with a surrealist fantasy that will have you questioning the role of technology and the meaning of faith. Sounds too arty for its own good?

Actually it’s not. The second act in particular packs a lot in and changes gear with such rapidity that you do have to concentrate to keep up but it’s well worth the effort. Set in a unspecified, not too distant future, the four remaining nuns at St Grace’s Convent are in a pickle.

Their Mother Superior has just died and beneath the surface of piety and goodwill very human emotions, petty jealousies and power struggles come to the fore. The quartet of nuns are all well-rounded characters; Jo Mousley’s Sister Elizabeth tries to assert her authority and keep the order going; Olwen May’s Sister Constance is of the old guard who has no truck with new fangled ways; Suzette Lewellyn’s Sister Philippa needs routine to keep her on track and Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as noviciate Thereasa is the innocent abroad. All four have their secrets and all four are tested as the play progresses.

Into this mix throw in Mary, a council-funded robot, superbly played by Breffni Holahan and the scene is set for the sheltered world of the convent to change forever. In this future world there are hints of the major changes taking place – robot workers tend the fields, we learn of reports of Luddites who are unhappy that they are taking away jobs and are threatening direct action. From Eastenders to living with a robot nun

For the nuns, Mary represents a source of income from the bursary they receive from taking on a robot, supposedly to carry out menial duties.What she actually does is far more impactful. Breffni Holahan brings an uncanny other-worldliness to Mary; her delivery and movement will get you wondering if she really is some form of artificial intelligence at times. Equally capable of slapstick comedy and Omen-like prophecy Mary is likeably terrifying.

Electric Rosary raises so many questions, particularly in the almost chaotic second act, that you leave the theatre slightly unsure about what you have witnessed. But it does it having given you many a belly-laugh along the way. It’s clever, innovative and slightly deranged at times but somehow it all works.

Electric Rosary is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until May 14.

Details from www.royalexchange.co.uk