I enjoy oversimplifications of complex things. Analogies that distill something to its most basic elements. Saying things like time management is like a juggling act, or Procrastination is borrowing happiness from your future self, while technically correct, lack nuance. And for some reason, I enjoy them – if only to annoy people with them. My favourite one that came to mind when watching Hunters Hill Theatre's production of Pope2Pope is that tradition is just peer pressure from dead people. Set in the not too distant future, Pope2Pope tells the story of a battle of wills between two fictional popes, including the first Australian Pope, John XXIV. The show is clever and well-researched, posing really interesting moral questions. While at the end of it, I wasn't always sure which side of the debate composer Melvin Morrow was directing us, I quite liked that about this show. It isn't preachy one way or the other; rather, it's a depiction of complex people existing in the world.
The two popes in question are Pope Emeritus John XXIV, played by Graham Egan, and the dogmatic Pope Pius the XIII, played by Christopher Brown. Both men have a wonderful presence on stage, commanding in vastly different ways. Egan as John is the kindly grandfather who exudes gentle warmth, contrasted to Brown as Pius who is, well, Pius and stern to reflect his dogmatic thinking. Both men play their roles perfectly and create a nice balance on stage. These men do not have an easy job, keeping the audience engaged while mostly sitting on a lounge. It's reflective of their skill that this conversation never feels laboured as it could easily be with less capable actors.
The story of the Popes might be confined to a lounge for the most part, but this does not mean the stage isn't being used. The Popes' conversation is in many ways the backdrop for the apparitions played by Anthony Slavern, Anthony Hunt, David McLaughlin, and Catherine Porter. Each of these performers has their time to shine in monologues that range from the hilarious to thought-provoking. Portraying a cavalcade of historically accurate Popes, they provide context to the philosophical debates of our titular fictional popes, as well as encounters with the devil himself and Agatha Christie. These apparitions are entertaining and essential to this production. Each performer is able to shift the mood and tone of the play, defuse tension, and contribute to the plot. My personal favourite apparition was the depiction of Borgia as a mafioso with a truly excellent jacket. However, each one is crucial in the machinery of the play, and each performer does a wonderful job of creating such distinct and unique characters. The last member of this company is, of course, Sharron Olivier as Sister Angelica. Olivier possesses an amazing wit and energy on stage, and she shares an easy rapport with Egan that enriches the character development.
This is a great show that benefits from fantastic technical aspects. The set is designed around one central piece, a gorgeous lounge – it's the epitome of well-executed simplicity. If there was one area of criticism I had for the production, it would be that while sounds are mostly used effectively, there were times where I wasn not sure they were needed. Aside from that very minor concern, the entire team led by director Elaine Hudson should be very proud of the work they have put together. I rate Hunters Hill Theatre's production of Pope2Pope 4 puffs of white smoke out of the chimney, out of 5.