Death is on strike and lost souls are piling up. Meanwhile, God’s taken early retirement from the family business and left those annoyingly officious seraphim in charge.
If that sounds like a Terry Pratchett/Garth Ennis mash-up to you, you possibly (like me) need to get out more. These familar celestial tropes actually present an opportunity for bright young things Accidental Theatre Company to explore a whole bunch of topical and satirical issues about the nature of good, evil and the spiritual pinch of heavenly austerity.
Death is the puckish narrator of his own tale here, a mugging, uke-playing one-man chorus. Accordingly deathly and meta-deathly duties are divided between Stephen Clarke and Gary Crossan. Their strikingly contrasting Deaths might be loosely modelled on The Seventh Seal and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey respectively.
The action centres around the bureaucratic shenanigans that keep the wheels of Paradise turning. Cutbacks mean outsourcing faith, streamlining operations, issuing heavenly visas to desirables and ensuring that Mary doesn’t appear in another tin of baked beans.
Into this Paradise Mislaid comes campaigning / interfering narcissist Cecilia Malarkey, who on being blown up at a gay pride rally, promptly informs Death that he’s being overworked and underpaid, encourages him to down tools, chivvies her way into heaven and embarks on a mission of bludgeoning reform that makes after-living extremely uncomfortable for angels Diligence and Chastity.
There are some amusing touches here and writer Dave Kinghan has plenty of subversive fun with his heavenly host. Angels are anti-abortion, anti-evolution homophobes who believe that dust is 'heavenly' for women, who simply love cleaning.
Less successful here is the attempt to counterbalance the reactionary antics of the angels with the more 'progressive' attitudes of Malarkey and her attempts to rebrand Heaven as a benevolent Benetton Dictatorship.
It’s something of a moral capitulation, to take the 'sure they’re just as bad as each other' route, rather than a full-on assault at the forces of superstitious unreason that still have something of a stranglehold on Northern Irish society. Recent broo-ha-has about Causeway creationism and women’s reproductive rights here pay sorry testimony to the malign influence that the blind faith wields in our curious little anomaly of a society.
Still, funders in Northern Ireland do like to see an illusory ‘balance’ in all art and cultural practice, and so it’s to Accidental’s credit that they tackle the thorny subject of faith-derived politics at all. Even the Ulster Museum is bracing itself for a delivery of display dinosaur saddles that will offer comfort to those upset by scientific rigour.
Unfortunately progress is dressed in the insubstantial threads of faux political correctness and New Labour, and it’s really rather annoying. There is a hilarious scene where Malarkey attempts to eliminate the language of gender reference, replacing 'him' and 'her' with 'yo'. It’s enough to make you root for the young-earth angels.
In the battle for hearts and minds, each side undertakes a contentious parade, each demands parity of esteem, and neither side will relent or back down. Sound familiar at all?
By the end, the play almost collapses under the weight of all this allegory and an uneven script that veers between inspired and lumpen. Director Richard Lavery ensures that this deceptively wordy play still rolls along on a rapid wave of hi-jinks and camp irreverence, which leavens proceedings, just when they seem like they’re about to sag.
The performances are spirited throughout. The cast clearly enjoy themselves, most notably young Chris Grant as a pragmatic gay assistant named Derek (try tackling that without crib notes). Grant is certainly a talent for the future. 'One to watch', as a 3am girl might say.
In fact Death (On a Shoestring) showcases an emerging theatre company most definitely on their uppers. Accidental aren’t the finished thing quite yet, but the creativity, verve and sheer sense of fun on display here is an indication that, with a little light trimming and tucking, Accidental might soon find themselves graduating from enjoyable end-of-term extravaganzas to fully-fledged, thought-provoking theatre.
Finally, kudos must go to a production that has Death sing his own blues, and answers that pernickety question – 'But surely Heaven welcomes equality and fairness?' – with, 'Have you read the bible?!'
Death (On a Shoestring) runs in the Grand Opera House until October 27. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.