“Every choice you make has its consequences.” The choice that furious Sophie (Hayley Atwell) suddenly hurls at her bewildered lover Tom (Kyle Soller) at the opening of “The Faith Machine” is typically stark: Either he quits working with a corrupt pharmaceutical multinational or she’s leaving. The resultant split determines their future, but it’s the past that has the most active role in the ethical dilemmas of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play. Diffuse though the multiple confrontations grow, the close of Jamie Lloyd’s beautifully acted production earns its emotion.
As in the scribe’s Olivier-winning debut “The Pride,” Campbell is intent on achieving dramatic effect by manipulating time.
Hopping between 1998 and 2011, the before-and-after of Sophie and Tom’s relationship is shaped by the influences of friends and family. Even the opening scene is fired up by the spirit of Sophie’s late father Edward (Ian McDiarmid), a bishop whose presence guides her anger.
As we subsequently learn in a witty scene set on the Greek island of Patmos, where he now lives with a gruff but kindly ex-prostitute maid Tatyana (very funny Bronagh Gallagher), Edward is fiercely principled, so much so that he’s about to leave the Church of England in disgust at its repressive stand over homosexuality.
The argument that follows with a visiting bishop (Jude Akuwudike) is intriguingly misleading. The highly articulate debate between the men amusingly wrongfoots audiences into thinking the play will be an issue-based debate witnessed by young and idealistic Sophie and Tom, who are horrified and baffled respectively.
Tom in particular cannot grasp Edward’s idea of faith which, as the title suggests, is a central concern but as the play slowly reveals, it’s not faith in the traditional sense. Further scenes moving towards the present gradually illuminate faith as an ethical rather than purely religious matter.
That much is hinted at in the opening scene, which is set on the sunlit early morning of 9/11. But rather than focusing on any literal depiction of the horror that followed, the day is chosen for the symbolic significance of that moment when private lives so powerfully intersected with public events.
It’s that sense of personal responsibility, even duty, that dominates Sophie’s life as a highly politicized woman and separates her from her longed-for relationship with Tom, who has abandoned his principles (having abandoned his promising novel) and sold out for a career in advertising.
The disparity between the two characters’ political outlooks is, however, too exaggerated, and since all the other characters hang off this central relationship, the strain shows. A flashback scene to Sophie’s father struggling with dementia is tenderly played but it lacks a proper dramatic motor, and further underlines the gulf between Sophie and Tom. Other than physical attraction in the earliest scene, for stretches of the play it’s hard for audiences to invest in the idea of a longstanding relationship between them.
That’s not the fault of the actors. Atwell has a wonderfully grounded zeal and energy that ensures a character who could be a prig is engaging even at her most impossible. Soller’s Tom thrives on a boyish mix of exuberance and conviction — a neatly ironic choice given that lack of convictions is what drives his character.
On the plus side, Campbell’s hallmark comic timing in multi-character scenes is often at the fore. A collision of ex- and current lovers at a wedding is deliciously funny, not least Maya Wasowicz’s marvelously arch, giraffe-like interior designer, who is the center of a string of gloriously funny one-liners and faux-pas.
For much of the evening the writing feels better than the play, which has passion and insight but lacks momentum despite the fluidity of Mark Thomson’s elegantly simple design and Lloyd’s unobtrusive but controlled direction. In the final act, however, certainties are undercut. Contradictions are revealed that strengthen everyone’s positions. The moving conclusion doesn’t have the killer punch of the neatly sentimental ending that some audiences crave, but it is to Campbell’s credit that his study of how to be good consciously resists oversimplification.