Saturday, 30 November 2013

Oliver @ Sheffield Crucible Theatre

I spent last evening at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for the Public Dress Rehearsal of Daniel Evans' new production of 'Oliver'.

Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Dickens' tale of the underside of Victorian London is a perennial favourite, despite its sometimes difficult subject matter (corruption, domestic abuse & murder feature highly), and it's good to see it revived as the Christmas Show this year.

This was a good, energetic performance with an enthusiastic cast. The singing and choreography were very good (apart from some singers being a touch flat at times) and there were some great comic moments too - almost a touch of pantomime in places, which is perhaps only right for a Christmas production.

It's the songs that make the show, and Evans has included even the lesser-known ones ('I Shall Scream' and 'That's Your Funeral') in this production. The Show-stoppers - 'Food, Glorious Food', 'Oom-Pah-Pah' (the only patch of light, really, in the second act), 'Consider Yourself' and 'You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two' were portrayed with the joy and exuberance you would expect, and the more reflective 'I'm Reviewing the Situation', 'Where is Love?' and the hauntingly beautiful and sadly poignant 'As Long as He Needs Me' brought the necessary seriousness to proceedings.

The cast, both young and older, worked well together and engaged the audience very well. For a dress rehearsal, this was an excellent performance. If you can get a ticket for this show (which runs now until 25th January) do so: you'll be in for a great time!

The Butler

The twentieth century was one of the most tumultuous and bloody that there was, with more lives lost in warfare than at any other time in history. On a smaller scale, too, those years brought uncertainty, upheaval and change - none more so than to the African-American community in the United States.

'The Butler' tells the story of one man and his family from the late 1920s to the present day as they are faced with the implications for them of racism, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. The central character, Cecil Gaines, was born and grew up on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia and in one fateful day witnesses his mother's rape and his father's murder at the hands of the plantation owner. Taken in by the mildly benevolent matriarch, he becomes a house servant until, for fear of his own life, he runs away, eventually ending up working in a hotel in Washington DC.

There he is 'spotted' by a White House staff member and is offered a position as a junior butler at the White House, and there he serves eight presidents during the course of a long and distinguished career, from Eisenhower to Reagan. These, as I've hinted at above, were particularly turbulent times for the American people, particularly the black community, and the story of their struggle for equality is played out on both the political and personal stage, as Gaines's son, Louis, becomes increasingly politicised and more and more involved in the struggle (and subsequently estranged from his father), and as younger son Charlie loses his life serving in Vietnam.

This was a deeply moving story, with some very strong characterisation and some brilliant cameos from the likes of Robin Williams (Eisenhower), Leiv Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (a particularly creepy Nixon) Alan Rickman & Jane Fonda (Ronald & Nancy Reagan), who all portray these iconic leaders in a real and non-caricatured way (it would have been easy to go simply for an impersonation, but they manage to avoid this). But central to the story are the Gaines family: the increasingly radicalised Louis (David Oyelowo); younger brother Charlie, always to some extent under his brother's shadow (Elijah Kelley); the underlying strength of the family, the recovering alcoholic mother & wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); and the strong-willed and dutiful Cecil (Forest Whitaker). It is their struggles with each other, and with a nation working through the pain and uncertainly of inevitable change and racial tension, that holds the story and these ground-breaking times together. All of the main characters put in very good performances, though at times some of Whitaker's dialogue was a little hard to understand, delivered as they were in a mumbled southern drawl.

Somehow the Gaines family always seemed to 'be there' at these important moments - it almost at times felt like Forrest Gump! Eventually, as the nation reaches the momentous events of 2008 and, it seems, the struggle for justice and equality is won as Barak Obama enters the White House, so Cecil & Louis are reconciled and all is well with the world. Of course we know that there is still a long way to go in terms of full equality and an end to the pernicious blight of racism, but this film does give one hope that we are making progress in the right direction, and does so without the use of too much schmaltz.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ekklesia - Church as Gathering

I've recently been preaching at a couple of Church Anniversary services, where I was reflecting on the nature of the Church. One of the things I said was about Church as Gathering, drawing on the root meaning of the Greek word that we most often translate as 'church' - ekklesia. Here's what I wrote: maybe it might speak to you.

In our gathering we bring together our diversity, our different gifts, abilities and graces, our unique contributions, to create a rich, wonderful grace-filled community of God’s people.

There is no better community on earth than the community of the Church. Here we bring our joys and triumphs and celebrate together; here we bring our trials and temptations and struggle together; here we bring our pain and our failures and weep together.

Here we are welcomed and accepted for who and what we are: whatever our age; whatever our bank balance; whatever our skin colour; whatever our gender; whatever our orientation; whatever our ability – or that’s how it ought to be.

The focus of our gathering is a table, and behind that table is a Cross, and on that table are the symbols that remind us that, whoever we are, we are united by a common – and yet an uncommon – love. We gather because of that love: the love that we have, however fleeting at times, for the God who loved us so much that he gave himself in Jesus Christ for each one of us.

There are times when that love will bring us to eloquent speech, to raptures of praise and thanksgiving. There are others times when our gathering will be struck dumb as we look desperately for evidence of that love in a world of pain and conflict and hatred: when we struggle to see God anywhere, and we wait the whisper of the breath of God on our cheeks and the faintest murmur of a word from God in our ears and in our hearts.