Review: The Chaplain (Read-Through)

‘Indeed there is darkness about…’

Content warning: Bad language, hanging and execution, implied sexual assault, religious abuse

Set in Victorian England, this is a story about sinners and their sins, about guilt and forgiveness, about poverty and its consequences. It explores religion and faith and the role they play in peoples’ lives. The narrative is both heart-breaking and gut-wrenching.

The Chaplain is set to debut at the Camden Fringe this summer. To test the show on a live audience, the cast and crew conducted a preview of the performance as a read-through at the ADC bar. With only one (!) week of rehearsals, they have created an extraordinary play.

The script manages to explore dark and unsettling themes in a way which touches your soul and gives the audience a lot to think about. Through a combination of dialogue and song, the musical carefully weaves the stories of five characters, slowly revealing their past and future and providing reasons as to why they are imprisoned and why they need to be “saved” by the Chaplain. The beautiful writing juxtaposes the blind belief in God with harsh realities of life, depicting crimes committed for survival, for love, and, most importantly, for the characters’ deeply held beliefs.

Enormous credit goes to Catherine McLean, the director of this musical, and Gabriel Owens, the writer and composer. The script flawlessly interspersed dark themes with moments of comedy, featuring subtle jokes amid the drama. The lyrics and music were spectacular, carrying the story forward and setting the tone of the performance. The saxophone, cello and keys all came together beautifully, and when the cast began to sing, the resulting symphony was simply majestic. My only wish was for more songs, as the dialogue currently dominates, but this is expected to change before the official debut.

Image credit: Catherine McLean

The talented cast deserves endless praise. Luke Muschialli shone as the Chaplain. His confident and powerful delivery of tricky lines was outstanding. His ability to sing, play the cello, and act simultaneously was simply phenomenal. Muschialli convincingly portrayed the Chaplain’s character development, or rather, the reveal of his true character. His smile during the darkest moments was an interesting, though perhaps occasionally inappropriate, choice. However, the moment when the Chaplain removed the cross from his neck, with his hands shaking, sent chills down my spine. As the tension rose, and he fully descended into madness, his complete breakdown was evident. The musical’s climax was extremely powerful, and Muschialli did a great job showing how tormented the Chaplain was. “May the Lord have mercy on his soul” indeed.

Another outstanding performance came from Lexie Graham as Mysterious Woman. She appeared as a ghost of the Chaplain’s past, a voice in his head, his conscience. Graham portrayed this complex character with immense talent, skilfully showing the Woman’s pain. Her voice was angelic, and her ability to maintain eye contact with the Chaplain, even while reading the script, contributed greatly to their already incredible chemistry. Her screaming “Look at me!” at the Chaplain gave me goose bumps – a truly strong performance.

The rest of the cast was also phenomenal. Wilf Offord as John singing “I Don’t Believe in God” was spectacular. I think I even saw someone in the audience tear up. Which isn’t surprising, as the actor’s ability to portray emotions with his voice was out of this world, complemented by his piercing gaze and expressive body language. Neela Nee as Edie amazingly switched from boldness to vulnerability, making her character’s story feel incredibly real. And she was able to skilfully hit the high notes in her songs. Sanaer Madden as Jenny was magnificent. She took my breath away when she was on the verge of crying, with her voice cracking and eyes filled with naïve, all-consuming faith.

Image credit: Catherine McLean

This intimate read-through felt like it was a few rehearsals away from being an extraordinarily powerful show. Although the musical is still in the process of being written, with plans to convert some of the dialogue to song and have more musicians on stage, it was already an incredible experience. I am excited to see what the amazing cast and crew can accomplish with a bit more time, and I look forward to witnessing how the show evolves with full lights, set design, and costumes.

The Chaplain delves into many themes, from the notion of suffering to earn God’s love to the need to ask for forgiveness for crimes committed without guilt. This musical tells the story of the Chaplain and his prisoners, of the souls he strives to save and the ways in which he believes he must do it. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a performance worth seeing. It poses profound questions that linger in your mind long after the show is over. As an audience member aptly put it, “There is a lot to unpack here.”

4/5 (but with a huge potential to reach 5/5 this summer)

The Chaplain will be showing on the 13th – 17th of August at 7:00 pm in London at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre as part of the 18th Camden Fringe. Book your tickets here.

Feature image credits: Catherine McLean     

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