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In the steps of . . . Fr Derek

24 May 2013

Pat Ashworth sees a new play about parish ministry in the Church of England


Encounter: Kevin (William St Clair) and Stephen (Paul Huntley-Thomas) in Entertaining Angels

Encounter: Kevin (William St Clair) and Stephen (Paul Huntley-Thomas) in Entertaining Angels

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 the church.

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.

Entertaining Angels, 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.

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