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All-singing, all- dancing . . .

10 October 2014

Peter Graystone sees an evangelistic musical wildly applauded in Wembley Arena


Trinity: Father God (Dave Willetts), Jesus (Paul Ayres), and Holy Spirit (Clyde Melville-Bain) in Love Beyond

Trinity: Father God (Dave Willetts), Jesus (Paul Ayres), and Holy Spirit (Clyde Melville-Bain) in Love Beyond

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 appreciatively.

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. Why?

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.

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