Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

agres trio

Sue Hawkins as Mother Miriam Ruth, Amanda Blockley as Agnes and Jane Lush as Dr Martha Livingstone

Agnes of God

Swan Theatre Amateur Company


A young nun is accused of killing her new born baby. She denies all knowledge of birth or baby, or even conception, retreating into her safe world of angels and universal love where she can hide from her demons most of the time.

Into this world comes Dr Martha Livingstone, court appointed psychiatrist, brought in to decide if the nun, Agnes, is fit to plead, decide if she is insane, in effect decide if she goes to prison or a psychiatric hospital.

While awaiting trial Agnes has been allowed to remain at the convent under mother superior Mother Miriam Ruth who has thrown a protective arm around her creating an uneasy working relationship with Dr Livingstone.

The good doctor wonders what is being covered up while the mother superior seems afraid of what might be exposed, things even she cannot understand.

John Pielmeier’s play poses many questions. Miriam believes in miracles, small miracles, things that cannot be explained. Dr Livingstone has the scientist’s view that everything has an explanation, you just have to find it. Belief against reason. As Miriam says: “What we have gained in logic we have lost in faith.”.

Agnes . . . well she believes in good babies from angels and bad babies . . . down there, and she loves everyone.

As the play goes on Dr Livingstone talks to us the audience, about her past, her sister who died in a convent, her feelings about that, and then in her clashes with Miriam we learn about both of them, their mothers, the guilt at the death of their sisters, of the doctor’s attitude to the Catholic church, of Miriam’s real relationship with Agnes.

maureen murphy

The real-life inspiration for the play

And Agnes . . . her interviews at first stonewalled, but slowly her guard drops and we find a troubled and troubling past with an alcoholic, mentally and physically abusive mother.

When hypnotism becomes involved and the cloak of fear is lifted there is a glimpse into the world she lives in, a world of devotion, and retribution, of angels, of good and evil in black and white terms, evil where her dead mother can continue her abuse, but it is also a world of light and good where God can, and does, appear to her in flesh.

Logic and faith again. Logic says Agnes has psychiatric problems, faith, at the more devotional end of the scale, would say she was blessed.

The production, directed by Christopher Newbould, is certainly blessed with three fine performances led by Amanda Blockley as Agnes. It is a remarkable piece of acting made all the more intimate in the confines of the Vesta Tilley studio.

Her glances, eyes looking away, little movements, demeanour, even the way she moves her hands, show fear, reluctance, wariness, even shame, as she is questioned, tiny details that bring Agnes to life, while under hypnosis she becomes a frightening spectre as emotions explode and pour out in a violent tirade. A performance that would not look out of place on a professional stage.

She was supported by two equally excellent performances from Jane Lush as Dr Livingstone and Sue Hawkins as Miriam.

Lush gives the doctor a calmness, an unemotional professional balance, she has a job to do and will do it to the best of her ability, which makes her matter of fact confessions of her past and her clashes with Miriam all the more dramatic, two characters; we see Martha the doctor and Martha the woman, sister, lapsed Catholic, who starts to go far beyond her remit.

original article

The report of the trial from the Schenectady Gazette - 4 Mar , 1977

He job was was to find out if Agnes could stand trial, that done she turns to trying to help Agnes, inquisitor to healer, and damn the can of worms that could open up.

Mother Miriam Ruth is like a mother hen in the hands of Hawkins, protecting Agnes not just from the doctor, and beyond her, the court and trial, but also from the world, or at least the world outside the convent. To her Agnes is an innocent, a child of God, a special one even, with the voice of an angel.

Whatever the outcome of doctor’s recommendation, a trial or insane, she wants Agnes to serve her sentence in the convent, effectively for life to carry on as normal, she as a mother to Agnes, Agnes still an innocent child of God.

Dr Livingstone threatens that, her search for truth, for reasons and explanations something that could awaken dogs no one could control. Hawkins cleverly changes the mother superior from no nonsense, protective to the point of obstructive at the start to a woman who has seen and lived in the real world, but still wants miracles, even suggesting immaculate conception.

There is a moment when she and the doctor discuss the smoking habits of saints when we realise they are not as far apart as their callings might appear.

The play is based on a real case in 1977 in Brighton in New York State when a 36-year-old nun, Sister Maureen Murphy denied having given birth and her baby, as in the play, was found asphyxiated in a waste basket. Murphy was acquitted, the trauma of birth seen as causing temporary insanity.

The play raises questions about theology, about belief, after all even atheism is only a belief, about upbringing and its effects, about miracles, logic and faith, with perhaps the title giving a clue to content, Agnes of God being close to Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

The play is not a favourite of mine but there is no doubting the quality of this particular production, monologues, duologues, trios all convincing and bristling with life with a slowly growing tension as the truth is prised out.

Roger Clarke


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate