Paul Russell

The Archbishop’s Ceiling at Southwark Playhouse

I have an admission to make. When asked to review The Archbishopâs Ceiling at Southwark Playhouse, I had never before been to this wonderfully intimate theatre, despite living in SE1 for several years.

I'm told by friends that the venue consistently produces high-quality shows, and if this production is anything to go by, I shall be a regular face in the audience from now on.

The Archbishop's Ceiling, by Arthur Miller, runs until Saturday 29 May – I urge you to make the effort to see it before it ends. Where else can you see five simply superb actors, perform a thought-provoking piece, staged in the round with the action taking place just feet away from you – all for a tenner a head?

The play itself is set in an unspecified former eastern European country in the 1970s. The cold war is very much sub-zero and the Communist secret services are at their zenith of paranoia. American novelist Adrian has come back to visit friends and an old flame Maya, while secretly seeking renewed inspiration for his latest book. Through Maya, he becomes embroiled in a mind-game involving his effusive host Marcus and dissident writer Sigmund. Is Marcus really working for the government? Why doesn't Sigmund want to leave for a rich life in the west? Is the ceiling of the room in which the drama unfolds bugged or not?

In one sense the piece feels dated, a story for its time, and perhaps Miller intended the self-righteous railings of the American character against the injustices of the country's Soviet regime to be irritating and smug – they certainly came across that way. But of more interest is the play's central theme of how people behave when permanently watched by a real Big Brother, how loyalties become mixed, and how friendships can be shattered by an ever-present fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Valentine Pelka is excellent as Sigmund, the free-thinking writer who cannot decide whether the wealthy and comfortable Marcus is his friend, a government agent, or someone who wants him to leave the country through personal jealousy. And Maya, played by Julia St John, is an equally enigmatic character, a woman who has half swallowed the state-sponsored brainwashing but who seems simultaneously unconvinced by it.

Of course, long since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this reviewer is left wondering whether we've simply swapped Communist mind-control for a Capitalist equivalent – but that's a whole other story…

• The Archbishop's Ceiling continues at The Southwark Playhouse (020 7620 3494) until Saturday 29 May.

• Special Offer: The theatre has put aside three sets of 2for1 tickets for every performance until the end of the run for anyone quoting ‘London SE1 offer' when they book.

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