Review: Mass, Bristol Old Vic

Mass_carousel3.5-stars                                                                 30th March 2015


Do you believe in God? Apparently for 63% Britain’s population the answer to that question will be “No”. Upon being asked this question at the beginning of tonight’s performance, the lack of hands raised in the affirmative reveal a similarly small proportion of non-believers in the audience. Writer and performer Amy Mason uses this actuality of an increasingly secular society to explore our relationship with faith, our responsibilities to each other and the help and hindrances that religious principles can impart in living a moral life.

As heavy as all that sounds, ‘Mass’ is anything but a weighty one hour of performance and its consistently playful tone, clever ideas and unique audience interaction make it one of the more accessible explorations into the existential. Certainly, Mason sets the tone when dismissing the introductory big screen clip of a Lindsay Lohan interview on Oprah as a “bad example” of spirituality because “they are both mental”.

Mason informs us that she was raised as a Catholic and she uses the format of a Catholic mass to deliver an autobiographical story of her struggles with religion and the evidently atheistic outlook she now possesses. Despite this, she acknowledges that we are all “Secret spiritual seekers” who reveal behaviours that suggest we are searching to be a part of something bigger; unity and oneness, however, are likely not to be found in astrology, homeopathic remedies or, despite what Noel Edmonds says, cosmic ordering.

Alcohol and sharing seem to be tenets of Mason’s personalised version of togetherness as she comically begins the service by wheeling out a trolley full of cans; a choice of lager, cider or lemonade to be distributed among us members of the congregation. She then delightfully discounts the Ten Commandments as “quite bossy” as she selects a bearded Moses substitute from the audience to write up some new commandments of his own.

Playing the part of what she has described as a “kind of wonky secular priest”, complete with Carman Miranda style headwear, Mason takes us through rather more earthly prayers of compassion, gratitude and a simple desire to try one’s best; the more traditional Amen being replaced by a shout of “Hooray!” at the end of each. Mason intermittently breaks up the order of service as she revisits the narrative of her own trials with faith and how an incident while travelling on a bus led her to re-evaluate life and our responsibilities in the face of tragedy.

The show’s main appeal is certainly in its uniqueness; this mainly provided by the consistent audience participation which induces moments of humour, contemplation and slight awkwardness. We are asked to quietly ponder what we are most thankful for (with accompanying whale song to drown out our awkward sniggers) and, because “religion has no monopoly on peace”, it is requested we greet everyone within range with “I wish you peace.” Also, several hopes and fears written down by each member of the audience before the show are read out to varying effect; World peace, comfortable ears, the saving of a marriage and better weather are all included. The biggest laugh comes from a revelation of a desire for “A socialist utopia in which I regularly get serviced by fit birds”; a humble entreaty that leaves Mason “conflicted”.

Elsewhere in an enjoyable and slightly odd theatre experience, plums and almonds are passed around, an audience member is entrusted to deliver the collection funds to the charity of their choosing and a story of listening to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ through new speakers seems far more logical a spiritual awakener than anything related to scripture.

‘Mass’ is an enjoyably off-kilter sixty minutes of theatre and manages to find a successful balance of the thoughtful and the frivolous. Not dismissing religious principles wholly and describing atheism as a “disordered” barrier to unity, at the show’s heart lies the simple belief that kindness should always prevail.

Or, to echo the show’s reference to Bill & Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”

Scott Hammond