First published in The Times, Friday October 27 2017
A religious upbringing can cling to even the staunchest atheist like the lingering smell of incense. For the theatre director Nicholas Bone and Rob Drummond, the acclaimed playwright, both sons of clergymen, the institutional memories and associations of religion are rather harder to shrug off.
Introducing their gently engaging theatrical collaboration (a co-production between Bone’s Magnetic North and the Traverse in Edinburgh) the two friends offer a brief flavour of their childhoods. Bone recalls the whirl of activity in the family home on a Sunday. Drummond remembers walking through the playground of his school to a chorus of Son of a Preacher Man from fellow pupils.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The 1907 memoir Father and Son by the writer Edmund Gosse provides the show’s framework. In his book Gosse describes his upbringing in a Plymouth Brethren home, his relationship with his devout father and eventual rejection of his father’s fundamentalism. Bone and Drummond, in period costume and surrounded by austere Victorian furnishings, stage scenes from the memoir, interspersed with discussion around their own relationships with their fathers.
The double act offers much to ponder during these, at times fractious, conversations, not least the question of whether it is possible for a non-believer to engage in a deep relationship with a person of faith (an issue with which both men have had to grapple). The piece also touches upon inter-generational conflict, the need to understand our parents even as we reject elements of their teaching or lifestyle. To this end we hear recordings of both the Reverend John W Drummond and the Right Reverend John Bone recalling their own fathers with a mix of admiration and bafflement. The sequence, drawn from the book, in which Gosse attempts to “come out” to his father as atheist, is surprisingly moving and powerful.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
From time to time, the 75-minute show, directed by Bone with Ian Cameron, feels a little fragile, skirting over the more difficult ideas explored in Gosse’s memoir, including the psychological aspects of religious belief and behavior, the tyranny of fundamentalism and our fascination with and fear of the metaphysical. If, at times, the piece (beautifully designed and lit by Karen Tennent and Simon Wilkinson) has the air of work that could be further expanded upon, Bone and Drummond at least offer moving insights into parent-child relationships that will ring bells with most audiences.