THE evangelistic coalition Crossing London has been building
church leaders' confidence to find imaginative ways of presenting
the Good News to people who rarely engage with a church. This
year's signature event is an epic musical, Love Beyond, a
decade in the planning, and presented to audiences of thousands in
Brighton and London. It tells the entire story of God's saving
relationship with humankind from Eden to heaven, in the hope that
unchurched people who love musicals will have their curiosity
roused to ask questions about an infinitely greater Love.
The intentions are wonderful. Is it any good?
Well, it's OK. I wish this were an uncompromisingly favourable
review, but, in honesty, it's OK. It is sung-through in the style
of British musicals of the 1970s and '80s. Sean Cavanagh sets it
between four black staircases with an onstage orchestra at the
rear. Nine diamond-shaped panels overhead show video images
(particularly delightful during the creation sequence).
In the first segment, God (magnificently sung by Dave Willetts)
creates all that exists. Adam and Eve frolic, and then fall in a
literal presentation of the opening chapters of Genesis. A chorus
in Victorian industrial working-class costume dance the violence
and despair into which humankind slumps.
The narrative leaps forward to the life, death, and resurrection
of Jesus (Paul Ayres, a very winsome performance). Then comes the
story of Saul's conversion. Today's Church is represented by a
contemporary worship song, and it climaxes triumphantly with
Christians' meeting God in heaven.
Richard Haley's powerful music is beautifully orchestrated. It
has anthems, ballads, and discordant sequences, although it's a bit
relentless, without space for wit. There is not a single weak
member of the cast, who are mostly West End ensemble members
revelling in playing principal roles. The choreography (Annette
Aubrey-Bradshaw) is often thrilling.
With so much going for it, why is it impossible to be more
enthusiastic? There are two things which undermine it.
First, there is a difficulty of scale. This is a Palladium-sized
show in cavernous Wembley Arena. For the first forty minutes, there
are rarely more than three people on stage. The director, Tabitha
Webb, keeps them moving fluidly, but it is only when the ensemble
of 20 rush in, writhing and fighting, that the impact begins to
fill the space.
The scale forces the production to resort to clichés. The risen
Jesus appears to his followers silhouetted by banks of light like
an X Factor winner, a moment that provoked giggles even
among the Christian leaders with whom I was sitting. The one moment
justifying the scale was a baby of 12 months playing Jesus, who
crawled and smiled with the aplomb of a professional. The tiny
creature in a huge room spoke of the fragility of the incarnation,
and was the first moment at which the audience stirred
The second reservation is that without a thorough understanding
of Evangelical theology it's really hard to understand what's going
on. Adam and Eve eat a forbidden apple because Satan tells them to.
(Surely it is unacceptable to portray Satan as a black woman
opposite a white male God?) She tells them that if they do so they
will become like God. The result is a stage filled with depravity.
The first half ends as the crowd sings jubilantly of the
miracles that they have seen Jesus perform. The second half begins
with his crucifixion - a complete reversal accounted for only by
Satan whispering in everyone's ear. How? The final tableau is set
in the heavenly future, with a heart-pumping anthem delighting that
Jesus has consummated his love for his bride. Whom?
The problem dramatically is that there is no character with whom
the audience identifies: no one who gives them their place in the
unfolding story. Not Adam, not Saul, and certainly not the ensemble
got up as the Peaky Blinders. Without that, it is
impossible to be emotionally moved. It has been written by a
preacher, not a dramatist.
Where does it fit among the many attempts to bring the Bible to
the stage? Unlike the National Theatre's glorious The
Mysteries, it doesn't melt your heart with an insight into how
the salvation of Jesus might transform your workaday life. Unlike
the recent arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, with its
projections of urban poverty and complacent injustice, it doesn't
enable the audience to understand why Jesus, the hope and the
challenge of humankind, is timeless.
Yet there is no denying that its music is rousing, the cast is
absolutely committed, and most of the audience were on their feet
at the curtain call. And, if I were asked to decide between the
flawed fervour of Love Beyond and the godless, cynical
brilliance of Simon Callow's The Man Jesus (Arts, 19 September,
currently touring), I would certainly choose the musical.