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The Two Popes

The Two Popes


Royal and Derngate Theatre

THE TWO POPES at the Royal and Derngate Theatre



The Two Popes

“James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting”


In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic world by resigning his position as head of the church; the first Pope to give up his position for seven hundred years. Elected in his place, was the current Pope Francis, a man with different opinions in almost every direction to his predecessor. Playwright Anthony McCarten sets the story just before Benedict’s shocking announcement, just as both priests are considering their futures. The play was first performed at this theatre in 2019 and returns to the same stage following its successful Oscar-nominated film adaptation.

The theatre is filled with the smell of incense and the sound of plainsong (Music composed by Anne Dudley). At the far end of a deep stage (Designer Jonathan Fensom) is a memorial for the deceased Pope John Paul II. A plume of white smoke arises, and Benedict (Anton Lesser) dressed in papal attire prepares to meet the throngs amassed in St Peter’s Square.

Skip forward eight years, and a sprightly Benedict – dressed in civilian clothes, white hair flowing – arrives home. Rain is pouring down and he makes jokes about being Noah. He looks forward to eating German noodle soup prepared by lifelong assistant Sister Brigitta (Lynsey Beauchamp) and watching the latest episode of a German TV adventure series. This is the Pope on his day off and Lesser makes the most of this role, clearly enjoying being a Pope unrestricted by the constraints of his position. Until, that is, Benedict confides to the Sister about his thoughts of giving up on being Pope.

In the next scene, a mirror of the one before, we meet Cardinal Bergoglio (Nicholas Woodeson) who talks of retirement to Sister Sophia (Leaphia Darko) who tries to persuade him not to give up on doing good for the people of Argentina. The move to Buenos Aires is shown with a change to the projection onto the three arches that frame the stage (Video and Projection Designer Duncan McLean). Some parts of the conversation are marred by discrepancies in South American accent, but Woodeson is clearly comfortable in the shoes of this amiable priest. Making the decision to retire, the Cardinal agrees to visit the Vatican to plead his case with the Pope.

Three scenes follow where the two men meet, often seated at a distance to each other across the stage to highlight the divide between them. Conversely, one scene sees them squeezed onto a small garden bench. They argue their differences despite their close proximity and the discomfort they feel is tangible. As they come to a mutual understanding, both priests hear the confession of the other under the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In a rather understated manner, we hear the tragic back stories that haunt both men: Bergoglio was unable to protect his priests from torture by the Argentinian Junta; Benedict was unable to prevent serial assaults by a priest under his tutelage. There are important issues here that could be aired further but this play is about the two priests as people and not about the wider issues of the Catholic Church.

The play ends with a mirror of the start and white plumes signal the start of the papacy of Pope Francis.

Despite the unlikely subject matter, there is much to be enjoyed in McCarten’s writing and even some laugh-out-loud moments. James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting. The performances of both leads are exceptional and Anton Lesser gives a masterclass in character acting as the pained Pope Benedict.



Reviewed on 11th October 2022

by Phillip Money

Photography by Manuel Harlan



Previously reviewed at this venue:

Animal Farm | ★★★★ | May 2021
Gin Craze | ★★★★ | July 2021
Blue / Orange | ★★★★ | November 2021
The Wellspring | ★★★ | March 2022
Playtime | ★★★★ | September 2022



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A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Wilton’s Music Hall

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Wilton’s Music Hall

Reviewed – 29th January 2020



“keeps a smile on the face throughout, finding glorious new dimensions and unexpected joyful twists”


With a sprinkling of fairy dust and a liberal injection of soul, the Watermill Theatre’s enchanting version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will put a spell on you.

This Dream’s a scream – and with its Edwardian setting fits perfectly into Wilton’s Music Hall. The Shakespearian shadows at the heart of this comedy certainly don’t offend and one senses the ghosts of variety past may be smiling in approval.

It is a play performed so often it takes something special to breathe new life into it and director Paul Hart and a bright young company do the Bard proud with a simply staged version that tells the story with clarity and manages to be joyfully creative too.

There’s some terrific doubling and mirroring of roles, several different to the “normal” and sometimes it’s hard to remember there are just ten performers in the Watermill Ensemble such are the quick changes and versatility of the company.

One innovative reflection here is that balancing out the down to earth thespianism of the Rude Mechanicals the fairies are all trampish shadows of some of the great music hall clowns, such as Fred Karno and Charlie Chaplin.

The Athens set (great stripped back design throughout from Katie Lias) appears to be backstage at a Victorian/Edwardian theatre, all ladders and fly ropes, which is transformed into the magical forest by the falling and raising of a red curtain and a beautifully ornate backcloth. The question being suggested is where the melodrama of real life ends and the otherworldly theatricality begins. Tom White’s lighting adds its own ethereal depth.

We are warned in advance that Lauryn Redding, due to play Bottom, is out of action following an accident during a performance of Macbeth, which runs in repertory with this production, and the 11th hour replacement is Victoria Blunt, who has played the role with the company previously.

There is no need to make any allowance for the substitution as this must be one of the best Bottoms ever seen. In what will go down in history as one of the truly great Shakespeare performances, Blunt finds comedy in every single line and action. Her weaver is a bluff and cheerful Northerner, childlike and cheerful, foolish and charismatic. There are some lovely moments where the fellow mechanicals gaze at her in wonder, enchanted by her daft artistry.

It’s a scene-stealing performance of the highest quality, yet such is the skill of the company and the director that it never overshadows the rest. This is exceptional ensemble work with the actors also playing instruments and delivering some pitch perfect albeit wonderfully incongruous versions of songs ranging from Sam Cooke’s Cupid and Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You to Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon. Joey Hickman’s arrangements conjure up moments of magic themselves.

Molly Chesworth is a sprightly and less than deferential Puck, as fed up with the power games of Oberon (a haughtily smooth and sexy Jamie Satterthwaite) as queen of the fairies Titania (a sultry Emma McDonald).

McDonald doubles as Hippolyta who is equally dismissive of her imperious new husband Theseus (Tow Sowinski who, in a clever and wry touch, also plays Snout the tinker, who in turn plays the ill-treated wall in the hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe play within a play) while Peter Mooney tries to keep the amateur actors in order as an enjoyably enthusiastic Peter Quince.

Robyn Sinclair shows off a magnificent singing voice and a talent for comedy as Helena, one of the four unfortunate lovers toyed with by the playful fairies in the forest. The quartet connects exquisitely and is completed by a dashing Billy Postlethwaite (Lysander), Lucy Keirl (Hermia) and Mike Slader (Demetrius).

This reimagined vibrant version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream keeps a smile on the face throughout, finding glorious new dimensions and unexpected joyful twists to this familiar piece that never loses its lustre.


Reviewed by David Guest

Photography by Pamela Raith



A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Wilton’s Music Hall until 15th February


Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Good, The Bad And The Fifty | ★★★★ | February 2019
The Pirates Of Penzance | ★★★★ | February 2019
The Shape Of the Pain | ★★★★★ | March 2019
The Talented Mr Ripley | ★★★★ | May 2019
The Sweet Science Of Bruising | ★★★★ | June 2019
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story | ★★★★★ | September 2019
This Is Not Right | ★★★★ | October 2019
Much Ado About Nothing | ★★★★ | November 2019
Christmas Carol – A Fairy Tale | ★★★★ | December 2019
Macbeth | ★★★★ | January 2020


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