Towards the end of Raz Shaw’s production of Chris Hannan’s new play, Clem (Iris Roberts) shrugs off her clothes and proudly stands naked on the Globe stage. It’s a surprising move, but there was a bigger reaction from the audience to the shocked gasp of “Oh my God” that rang out from the pit on the night I watched it.
Written specifically to be performed at the Globe, The God of Soho’s mix of classical allusion and modern swagger, its sniggering sense of anarchy, is well suited to the building’s heritage of openness and informality, reflected in the faces of the people crowded around the stage as the boisterous backing music of King Porter Stomp pulses upwards into the night sky. But for all of its enjoyably colourful chaos, blue language and X-rated antics, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.
Clem, the former goddess of sex and love, has been cast from Heaven and into the madness of Soho because she’s unable to forgive New God for jilting her. She soon encounters a homeless man who’s found a hot-pink bag of sex toys. Belonging to Natty, a velour-clad nightmare of modern celebrity (played with eye-clawing gusto by Emma Pierson), the bag has been stolen and dumped by her ex-boyfriend Baz, a Pete Doherty-styled singer with a penchant for self-important pontificating. As Clem becomes involved with the pair and their tabloid-baiting feud, a remorseful New God takes human form in a bid to win her back. Meanwhile, Big God (with Mrs God in tow) descends to Earth to find his daughter. Heaven is falling and it’s his fault for kicking her out.
Satirising headline-hungry celebrities by using gods is an obvious choice for a play preoccupied with who society puts on a pedestal, and why. Heaven may be their home, but this dysfunctional group of supreme beings has more in common with the squabbling immortals of Greek mythology than anything in Christianity; the salaciousness of oral tradition echoing down the centuries, through stories of kings and leaders walking disguised among their people, into red-top newsprint. And like the innumerable inhabitants of Mount Olympus, or, say, the Big Brother house, some are powerful and influential for no obvious reason – a point Hannan makes none-too-subtly with the character of “Shit God”.
Such repeated heavy-handedness is the production’s main problem. It’s particularly noticeable in the first half, which buries the narrative under a stiflingly thick layer of self reference and crams it with too many societal digs that don’t go anywhere – turning an already paper-thin plot into something distinctly threadbare. And by distracting us from the flow of the story, Hannan draws our attention to its flaws.
The central thrust of the play is that we idolise the people we do because their sheer awfulness makes us feel better about ourselves. But this isn’t a new idea: the dreadful Natty with her push-up bra and self-serving support of charities for the limbless has already passed into stereotype. To look for subtlety in something so gleefully trashy would be as fruitless as searching for a tea-cup in a brothel. But the sledgehammer approach becomes an issue if, as here, it’s used to crack a nut that’s been smashed to pieces several times before.
This problem recedes in the second half, as Hannan clears away some of the narrative clutter to focus on the ties of anger, love and, ultimately, acceptance that bind his characters together. In doing so, he enables the foul-mouthed wit and poetry of his writing to move as well as dazzle. This is true of the production as a whole, after the interval. From the funeral that turns into a sleazy, trumpet-backed dance routine to the hilariously long scene in which Natty and Baz (Pierson and Edward Hogg on fine tragic-comic form) shag their way to mutual insight, the show’s smutty set pieces become more emotionally meaningful.
In general, the cast is strong. Roberts successfully conveys Clem’s progress from wide-eyed curiosity to understanding, while William Mannering, as New God, manages to claw back the audience’s sympathy during a rare moment of quiet reflection on how hard it is to forgive someone who’s hurt you. A sometimes too shouty Phil Daniels plays Big God with shades of King Lear, his mind crumbling like a cliff as he ceases to be able to cope with a world he created but can no longer experience. And as Mrs God, Miranda Foster has the tragedy of a faded beauty queen, plastering over the cracks with fake tan and a vacant smile while the remnants of her hollowed-out life dribble into the colostomy bag at her side. Icky but strangely poignant, images like these stand out in a production of a play which would have benefited from a more stringent edit and, ultimately, feels insubstantial.