The Necessity of Atheism

Fri 5th – Sat 20th August 2016


Amy Mace

at 01:56 on 7th Aug 2016



This short play opens with promise. Alexander Banks' wordy but well-articulated speech sets the scene for a strong and witty caricature of a young Percy Shelley, pushing for liberty and reform with all the optimism and rigor of his years. The play centres around an essay he actually published on Atheism in 1811 during the Napoleonic War, but this episode is given a comedic twist with the help of a flying apple.

The historical setting, his college at Oxford University, seems a suitable backdrop for such a satire on the upper-class establishment, its prejudices, and the young educated liberals who aimed to destabilise its pious roots.

Despite the occasional humour this slapstick comedy offered, the themes introduced in the opening scene, disappointingly, do not develop. Long and wordy exchanges slow the play's initial pace, and Banks' moralising final speech from the young radical feels obvious and a little misplaced amid the tongue in cheek pantomime of the rest of the play.

David Middleton’s humorous portrayal of the college's bumbling Master Griffith is reasonably well-sustained, and a source of some humour, but again the play is slowed by a scene that dwells too long in his office, with the dialogue between himself and Lord Eldon (Laura Williamson) feeling laboured by the time the setting changes. Set changes are efficient, subtle, and not too ambitious for the modest space in which the play is performed, but the slickness of the piece is at times undercut by stumbled lines and tricky entrances and exits through the dark curtains that surround the stage.

A highlight is a dream sequence, in which lively music and colourful lighting effects compliment chaotic chases. But it seems nothing more than a theatrical device, used to inject some energy into a play which was threatening to stagnate. The next movement of the plot would have been possible without this boisterous interlude.

Banks’ lead is strong, but his material is perhaps what lets him down. Performances vary in standard, but it is the lack of development or surprise in the script which really limits the potential resonance of this satire.


Ed Grimble

at 10:53 on 7th Aug 2016



From stolen rowing boats, to taking a dip during a shoreline cremation, the Romantic poets offer a rich vein of anecdotes and episodes for the canny playwright. Anglia Ruskin Creative have, in ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, focussed the lens on the circumstances surrounding Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sending down from University College, Oxford in the spring of 1810. Their expulsion followed the publication by Shelley and his close friend Thomas Hogg- played here by Alexander Banks and Victoria Penn respectively- of a radical pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’.

Adapting, with few alterations, a period of recorded history for the stage presents the dramatist with a conundrum: to whom are you pitching this show? Some in the audience would undoubtedly have only the faintest idea as to who Percy Shelley was, let alone that the events depicted onstage are reasonably accurate. Conversely, the show would of course also draw Shelley devotees. The line that must be trod in order to cater to these two groups is a fine one- and playwright Sean Lang makes a commendably fine effort. Exposition is for the most part relatively fluid and natural, punctuated by only a handful of instances where the authorial signposting is a little too conspicuous. Early 19th century buffs are rewarded with a number of subtle nods to Shelley’s other works.

Somewhat tangentially, a glaring instance of where the play fumbles in its dealing with historical subject matter occurs during Banks’ impassioned speech regarding the freedom to proclaim and offend. His swivel to face the audience and subsequent cracks in the fourth wall result in mere contrived moralising; the subtext is yelling that this is a historical episode that still possesses those twin clichés of ‘universality’ and ‘contemporary relevance’. This is an unexpected blunder given the quality of the surrounding drama.

The success of this play, whilst of course owing a great deal to Lang’s script, ultimately lies with lead Alexander Banks. His Percy Shelley is marvellous: pretentious, precocious, and incessantly preposterous. Scrambling through his friend Thomas Hoggs' (Victoria Penn) rooms and smashing a porcelain model, Shelley quips that ‘on aesthetic grounds I consider it an improvement’. Indeed, such was Banks’ stage presence and convincing portrayal of the young Oxonian, that even with the sparse set, the audience could place themselves with ease amongst the dreaming spires.

It is perhaps then a shame that ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ lacked the consistency in quality in its cast that would have made this mediocre performance a great one. While David Middleton brings to the role of Master Griffith flashes of hugely funny sycophantic grovelling and quick-witted impertinence, the rest of the supporting cast are the show’s Achilles heel. They lack the verve and credibility that the two mentioned bring to their roles. The show, unfortunately, is also pockmarked by small (but frequent) stumbles in diction and line recall.

This show is well worth a watch. Appreciate its competent script and sterling lead performance, but perhaps try to quickly forget or ignore those moments where one is left looking at Anglia Ruskin Creative’s works, and despairing.


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