Review: The Pietà, St Johns in Piccadilly

Sometimes, though increasingly rarely for me these days, a visit to the theatre can completely take you by surprise by totally exceeding any expectations you might have, if indeed you have any at all. I was taken to The Pietà by a good friend, and I agreed purely on the strength of it being Frances Barber doing something in a church, St Johns in Piccadilly to be precise, and by jove am I glad I did.

Named for the famous statue by Michaelangelo of the Virgin Mary cradling her son’s broken body, this piece takes that theme of motherly anguish and relocates it to the gun-crime-ridden streets of modern-day Manchester. It is a dramatic monologue of a mother who witnesses her son’s violent death, but the role of the mother is shared by Frances Barber who recites text, a soprano vocalist Claire O’Brien and a cor anglaisist Jessica Mogridge who each take turns in portraying the mother, sometimes alone, sometimes together.

The whole thing is set to music by a string orchestra, so it kind of straddles the music/theatre divide, and resultantly very difficult to describe. However, what is not difficult is to rave about it. The Pietà is an incredibly moving piece, full of anguish and emotion but never being mawkish or self-indulgent, and it was further enhanced by the setting in a church. Barber’s eloquent readings frequently made the hairs stand on end, as did the singing, and though I am no expert, the cor anglais playing was equally poignant.

Written and composed by Shane Cullinan, this truly was a unique experience, and such a coup to have as seasoned a performer as Frances Barber participating so fully in it. It only ran for two performances this month, but has been performed before so keep your eyes peeled, you will thank me!

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