The Faith Machine (Royal Court Theatre)

Andrew Billen finds no subtlety or wit in a play about religion.

The Faith Machine
Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

Unwittingly, I fear, in The Faith Machine, Alexi Kaye Campbell has written a play about stupid people for stupid people. It is the kind of drama that gets a laugh from the word "prostitute" when said in front of a priest and a bigger one from "transvestite". "Marxist" is a punchline - unbelievably mistaken as a European nationality by a New York socialite. "Croydon" is good for a laugh, too. It's as if Victoria Wood had sat down to write a play of ideas, in this case about how, without faith, we are all lost.

It is a serious subject, I suppose, and the play needs serious characters. Instead, Campbell patronises his mouthpieces, whether minor, such as a Russian housekeeper, or major, namely its leads, the liberal bishop Edward, who resigns after Lambeth Palace votes against gay priests, and his daughter, Sophie.

Edward is played by Ian McDiarmid with his usual technical precision. Sadly, the character is an apology for a Christian thinker, his insights never rising above "The only sin is not to love" and the notion that the Christian story is not to be taken literally. I knew we were in trouble when he began to quote the bits of Yeats and Dylan Thomas that everyone knows. The play exhibits some bravery when it takes on African fundamentalists and some courage when Edward lays into an African priest, but the character, as drawn, is unable to rise to the level that the play requires of someone who will return, post-mortem, to egg on his child, Hamlet-style. How can he, when his main speech is delivered in the throes of post-stroke anger and confusion and when, the next time we see him, he has soiled his sanitary blanket?

Sophie, our heroine, played by the extraordinarily miscast English beauty Hayley Atwell, is a secular angel - a journalist who reports oppression when abroad and wipes her dad's bottom when at home. She is so committed that she digs up dirt on an evil pharmaceutical company that kills children in Uganda, even though her boyfriend, Tom, has spent six months on its advertising campaign. (Advertising is inherently bad and absurd here.) For all we hear about her inspirational journalism, what we see is Sophie grappling with a broken heel at a society wedding while in a state of intoxication that miraculously lifts when she is required to give a How-did-I-get-here-where-am-I-going speech, and Tom grappling to undo her bra in a bedroom scene whose denouement, unhappily, is realised offstage. Her much-vaunted intelligence has to be demonstrated later, when others sift through her library, paying special attention to the Russian classics.

What is Sophie, dim or brilliant, doing with the skinny, shallow redhead Tom (Kyle Soller), who goes through the whole evening without saying one smart thing and cannot even recall the word "resurrection" when joshing Edward? Once more, we have to be reassured that there's more to him by reference to a novel - here, one that he is writing. It is this dolt who is the subject of a speech by Sophie in which she confesses that, one night in Iraq, she decided she did not "give a flying fuck" for dying or dead children, as all she wanted was to be with him. Sophie's supposedly redeeming, pro-faith declaration that, against empirical evidence, she believes in "the human being" might have had a chance if the human in question had not been him.

But, you ask, why do I think this play is for the stupid? The second press night was doubtless packed with friends of the cast, whose laughter was surely polite? I don't think so, because when Campbell proved that he can write sophisticated sarcasm - for example, in an exchange justifying homophobia on the grounds of the world's "dwindling" population and its "surplus" of natural resources - the audience remained silent. The Faith Machine is one of those dumb plays that will still manage to fly over some heads.

“The Faith Machine" runs until 1 October. Details:

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires