Press the panic button... Lucifer's legged it: The Mail's theatre critic is directing his village's Easter play. So why has the Devil disappeared and did the Bible really feature green underpants
Thank goodness no theatre critics are coming! That's all I could think after the dress rehearsal for our village's Mysteries play.
You may think this an odd thing for the director of an amateur production to say, since such people are normally desperate for newspapers to dispatch a reviewer.
But, believe me, it was a heartfelt alleluia. As the Mail's drama critic, I know what swine critics can be.
The New York Times used to have a reviewer, Frank Rich, so severe that he was known as The Butcher of Broadway.
Stars of the show: From left, Sue Farr (choir), Jill Wylie (Mrs Noah), Verity Look (Mary) and Marigold Farmer (choir)
If he had seen our dress rehearsal last Sunday, fearless Frank could have opened a chain of Dewhursts.
It was not that the final run-through had been a total disaster. Parts of it had gone pretty well, and there were moments when I felt proud of my darling actors.
But there had been one or two (make that six or seven) alarming malfunctions that would have been seized on by any pencil-sharpening wiseacre in the stalls.
A missed entrance here, a bungled murder there (the killer forgot his dagger), repeated 'drys' when the lines just wouldn't come to mind - and the musical section bursting into a song at completely the wrong moment
Dressed up: Debbie Edwards - in her onesie and figleaves - as Eve
Plus the underpants moment, of which more anon. We theatre reviewers love an onstage hiccup: wobbly scenery, slipping wigs, doors that will not close.
How we rub our palms at a mini-disaster. An Ophelia whose accent suddenly pinks into her native Geordie? Ha! A miscued entrance, particularly if accompanied by an audible 'Oh bugger, I'm on!' from the wings? Scribble, scribble we go in our notebooks.
We armchair snoots swoop on such boobs, writing off perfectly watchable shows, propelling old actresses toward the gin bottle (often they do not need much encouragement).
I was at it only the other day when reviewing the new Alan Ayckbourn at the Royal National Theatre, unable to resist mentioning the tendency of one veteran thespian to wander rather a long way from the script. A few goofed lines?
He would have been at home in our village show. 'Who has the biggest part?' my 11-year-old daughter Honor asked. 'God,' I replied. 'Oh,' countered Honor. 'I thought it was the prompter.'
Mystery plays are not whodunits. They are a dramatic tradition reaching back to the 13th century, consisting of various episodes from the Bible, rendered in the medieval English vernacular.
They are sometimes also called Passion Plays, though that creates misunderstandings of a different sort. As the Mail reported yesterday, when a group in Oxford applied for permission to go ahead with theirs, some dope at the council heard 'passion play' and seems to have mistaken it for a sex play.
Result: permission denied. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of the tradition.
Michael Sheen (who so brilliantly skewered Tony Blair when he played him on TV) appeared in an enormous Mysteries at Port Talbot, and the Wintershall Passion Play is staged in London's Trafalgar Square.
In a burst of naïve enthusiasm a year ago, I had the idea of our tiny parish (population 120) staging one. What a straightforward wheeze it seemed.
Like some wholesome co-operative, we would toss together a few scenes, learn our lines, apply dollops of make-up, and be transformed - as automatically as contestants in Stars In Their Eyes - into the Biblical characters we were seeking to create.
There is a saying: 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.' It was surely invented with amateur theatre directors in mind.
'Lucifer on stage, please.' Nothing. 'Where is Lucifer, please?' Came a voice from the back: 'Lucifer's gone to Derbyshire.' I mean here no adverse comment on Derbyshire, which is a heavenly county.
Oxford City Council banned the re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (shown here from its last performance in 2012) wrongly believing the play was a sex show and could cause 'grave offence'
What I mean is that one of our church wardens, Charles Gething Lewis, who is playing our Devil in a magnificent pair of red tights, was missing from the dress rehearsal because he had been summoned to a family party in the East Midlands.
It had slipped my mind. Critics would be surprised how much a director has to remember - and forget. Noah was missing in action, too. Man overboard? Not quite. Noah was in Brittany.
He was supposed to have gone the previous week, but he had whacked his head on his garage door and lost a couple of pints of blood, so had to delay the trip.
Herod, meanwhile, had missed the previous week's rehearsal because he was in Ontario on business. And Simeon was stuck in Gloucester without a car. When arranging rehearsals these past two and a half months, I have often felt like a man trying to net plankton.
No wonder West End director Sir Trevor Nunn is such a bag of nerves. Musical interludes are being threaded into our dramatic tale. My beloved wife Lois, in addition to playing the organ, has revived her violin after some 30 years in abeyance.
Some of you may have heard the howls of mating foxes. You will therefore understand the screeching din my children and I have had to endure in recent weeks while Lois scratched away. To think that I sometimes, at first nights in the West End, dare to criticise orchestras for minor lapses of tempo.
At least they're in tune. Not having done any am-dram since university days, I had forgotten how long it can take to get scenes right.
Now I understand why Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the Royal National Theatre, is so bald: he must have pulled out his hair in frustration. Two years ago, along with impresario Bill Kenwright and actor Miriam Margolyes, I was a judge in Sky TV's Britain's Best Am Drams.
How I wish now that I had been more understanding of the various productions' failings! I wrote our village Mysteries in cod-medieval verse over Christmas, and we had our first open meeting in early January. From that moment, the enthusiasm of my cast of 29 has been fantastic.
We have all ages and abilities, and our occupations include farmers, schoolchildren, retired folk, a shepherd, social worker, forestry expert and City investment whizz. We are staging the Old Testament scenes in the graveyard, including the moment God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The weather has been lovely this week, but it was a different matter one morning in early February, when the graveyard's grass was white with frost. Abraham (Alex Aldrich-Blake, the church treasurer) raised his mighty blade - it was, in fact, a twig - in order to strike dead his beloved son Isaac.
I looked at Isaac, who is being played by 13-year-old Sebastian Lee, and noticed that the boy was trembling. 'Fantastic acting, Basie!' I cried.
'You really look as though you are shivering from fear.' Only when I looked more closely at young Sebastian did I realise that the poor lad had forgotten to bring a coat and was frozen to the bone.
He was shivering so much he could not utter his lines. If the NSPCC had caught me, I'd have been up before the beak.
In the same scene, an angel (played by Brenda Thompson, who lives at the crossroads) has to leap in to prevent Abraham eviscerating poor Isaac. At the dress rehearsal, Brenda duly made her entrance, opened her mouth - and nothing came out. Stage fright can do that to you.
But if it happens at the real performance tomorrow afternoon, and the angel fails to prevent Abraham killing his son, the story is going to take an unexpected turn. My nerves are in tatters. Of course the quality of the performance does not matter, so long as we do our best. What really matters is the terrific comradeship this play has created: a deep-rooted sense of community that many metropolitan types would struggle to understand.
Which leaves us with the underpants. One of our scenes is the funeral of Lazarus (played by Steve Dean, whose lovely wife Caroline is playing Mary Magdalene). A solemn and miraculous moment. Well, it is on the page, anyway. At the dress rehearsal, Lazarus was lying there, dead on his bier, feet pointing towards the auditorium - giving a bracing view, oh no, of his green smalls.
Did they have Y-fronts in Judaea 2,000 years ago? If I had been there in my capacity as a critic, I would - unlike Lazarus - have been in heaven.
* The How Caple Mysteries will be performed at How Caple church, Herefordshire, tomorrow at 3pm - provided everyone turns up. Admission free. Bring your own earplugs.
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