The eponymous God Committee meets to decide who gets life-saving treatment - and who does notJonathan Powell

CN: This review refers to illness and death

Trying to make sense of The God Committee can feel like building sandcastles in a thunderstorm; as soon as something starts to take shape, it blows away. The play, set in a surreal hospital where patients are treated for renal failure using a limited supply of dialysis machines, is defined by the moral uncertainty this situation generates, as well as a broader sense of all-consuming doubt. It is a wonderfully anxious and genuinely thought-provoking piece of drama. 

This ethical and epistemological quagmire is reflected onstage in the lighting - which shifts from an ambiguous dimness to a surreal hyper-saturation - and sound, as muffled effects, voices, and fragments of song echo around Downing College’s beautiful Howard Theatre. These devices have different specific uses at different times, but they consistently leave the audience with the unsettling impression that something isn’t quite right.

This sense of the surreal also finds its way into the plot, which revolves around a pair of patients: Oliver Critchlow (Colin Hood), an almost stereotypical grumpy old man, softened by his relationship with teenager Emily Leeman (Harry Dixon-Spain). Given that the play is most concerned with these two characters, they have surprisingly little agency; Oliver perches on a chair, leant on their stick, and Emily sits reading on a bed, the two talking as the other characters in the play move around them. Hospital administrator Kane (Ashley Cooper) must deal with protestations over funding from the their doctor, Fabrico, played by Elizabeth Kate Weber; Nurse Nightingale (Beck Walker) floats in the background; and most menacingly of all, the eponymous God Committee meets to decide who gets life-saving treatment - and who does not. 

"I was struggling to comprehend what I had just witnessed"

The play’s script, by Jonathan Powell, is well-plotted, and combined with Yelena Persaud’s direction, conveys a real sense of threat. This lets the audience feel the suspense and anxiety of the patients at the heart of the story; medical staff, and members of the Committee enter from the back of the stage, walking with a menacingly smooth gait, stealing up unnoticed on Oliver and Emily, who sit impotently at the front. 

All of this means that as the plot unfolds, the audience’s confusion and concern grow inexorably. Persaud’s direction seems finely calculated to unsettle, and Powell’s script liberally employs aposiopesis and little revelations to force the audience to rethink their tentative grasp of what is going on. Even as the lights went up, I was struggling to comprehend what I had just witnessed, something about which the play is rightly unapologetic.

This does not always work perfectly. The lilting cadences of Emily and Oliver hypnotically intensified the play’s ambiguity, but also tended to obscure their characters’ pathos. This is regrettable, because the pair are what lend the play its emotional resonance; the fuzzy loudspeaker-announcement early on that “Everything that you are about to see is true. Except what is not” felt a little on the nose. 

"deft plotting, intense direction, and nuanced themes"

Thus, as the play began to draw to a close I had mixed feelings - I had been thoroughly confused, and definitely affected, but wasn’t entirely sure to what end. Then, however, came the play’s twist, which unequivocally swept away any doubts I was having. Historically I have viewed plot twists as a somewhat cheap trick, to which truly impressive literature does not need to stoop. The God Committee has seriously dented this impression; its ending was wholly unforeseen, at least by me, and yet emerged so perfectly out of its deft plotting, intense direction, and nuanced themes that I almost gasped when I realised what had happened. 


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The play is not perfect. I sometimes felt that Powell’s writing couldn’t quite keep pace with his imaginative plot, as his masterful ability to manipulate the play in its entirety outstripped his fine-tuning of individual scenes. This is an understandable flaw, but regrettably one which became more evident as the plotting reached its most impressive in the play’s final few minutes. But this is a minor point; the play was compellingly acted with Ashley Cooper’s Kane and Jenny Cyffin-Jones’ menacing “Mr C”, an anonymous member of the God Committee, especially deserving praise for really bringing their characters to life despite having fewer lines. Overall, as the (metaphorical) curtain fell, and I stepped out into the vastness of Downing’s Main Court, I was left feeling shocked, unsettled, and concerned - but above all certain that I had just witnessed a truly well-crafted piece of theatre. 

The God Committee is on at the Howard Theatre, Downing College at 19.30 until Sunday 6th March