THERE is a moment in
Entertaining Angels when the Revd Stephen Parr, frustrated
by the intransigence of his churchwarden and the "roaring apathy"
of his dwindling rural congregations, asks in despair of God: "Just
give me one single, sodding thing that I can actually do."
The empathy from the audience was almost palpable. I could spot the
clergy, even though they were in mufti.
This new play by Brendan
Murray is extraordinarily perceptive. He acknowledges himself to be
neither a Christian nor to have come from a rural background, but
what he has done is to spend a great deal of time talking
first-hand to people in those communities, besides reading
"everything from the Gospels to 'How To' manuals for rural clergy."
The result is a very honest and devastatingly accurate picture of
the Church of England at work and in decline.
Stephen is the compromise
candidate, the man with the misfortune to follow the blessed Fr
Derek, whom he bitterly describes as an amalgam of George Herbert,
Alastair Sim, and Bagpuss. Stephen has to endure the constant
refrain of the disapproving churchwarden, Sue, that "This would
never have happened in Fr Derek's day," whether that is about his
letting the doughty old widower, Jack, put garden gnomes on his
wife's grave, or allowing the travelling man, Kevin, to sleep in
Giving Kevin a blanket
and pillow is tantamount to defiling a holy place - "A church is a
decent place for decent people" - and what that kind of thing will
do to property prices is nobody's business, even though the man can
quote scripture and is amenable to both having his own feet washed
and washing the feet of Stephen.
Given the title, it is
not hard to see where the story is going; but there are many twists
and turns before redemption comes. And it does, despite the
pessimism; for this is a tender, affectionate, and ultimately hope-
ful, as well as sometimes angry, play.
There are just five characters, all roundly drawn.
Stephen's very likeable wife, Mel, respects but doesn't share his
faith: they were married before his calling. She has her own
career, doesn't want to open the church fête, resents the money
that he pours into good causes, and, most of all, wants to get
pregnant. The day when, as ever, duty comes first and he has agreed
to take a funeral when they should be together at the IVF
consultation, is pivotal. There was a sharp audience intake of
breath when he made the admission.
Most of all, the play
explores the nature of belief and unbelief, and how outsiders look
at the Church. For Jack, whose dead wife was a churchgoer, "It's
private what you believe in." Mel reflects: "You can't feel
something if you don't feel it, can you?" The brittle Sue has her
own private tragedy with which to come to terms.
The play was commissioned
by New Perspectives, a high-calibre touring company whose work goes
into mainly rural communities in the East Midlands. The company has
an unerring instinct for what will chime with its audiences, and
when I feel (as I often do) like lamenting that good plays like
this don't get the recognition and don't hit the big stage, I think
I'm probably wrong. They belong here, in intimate close-up, in
village halls and churches and community centres where they reach
the parts that theatre doesn't always reach.
Thus, when Stephen is
giving a sermon to the depressingly small number of faithful, we
are facing him from the pews, sitting behind "the lovely Sue", as
the embittered Mel describes her. The action is seamless and the
dynamic powerful on a simple touring set, with its church altar,
churchyard bench, and vicarage interior. Advent and Lent come and
go, and with them the changing seasons.
Paul Huntley-Thomas as
Stephen makes a very credible vicar, a man who asks himself all the
time, "What would Christ do?" but whose self-belief has been so
eroded that he doesn't realise that he is doing exactly what Christ
did. The play suggests that those outside the Church can sometimes
display more insight. We, as churchgoers, are shown to be less than
helpful at times.
written by Brendan Murray and directed by Tilly Branson, tours the
East Midlands until 1 June, with Paul Huntley-Thomas as Stephen,
Judith Faultless as Mel, Beatrice Comins as Sue, William St Clair
as Kevin, and John Walters as Jack.
For the remaining
venues, see www.newperspectives.co.uk.