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Christian journey played out in Norwich theatre

Pilgrims progress2011: A modern adaptation of John Bunyan’s classic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress was performed in Norwich on July 11 by the Saltmine Theatre Company.

Mark Sims reviews the retelling of this epic journey set in the Industrial Revolution.

It may be divine providence that the last production I watched at the Playhouse was Richard Herring’s stand-up comedy show ‘Christ On A Bike’, in which the atheist ridiculed Christianity.
Towards the end of Saltmine’s adaptation of John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, an atheist character (the functionally-named ‘Atheist’, played by Simon Rodda) is given short shrift by the equally practically monikered protagonist, Christian (Matthew J. Sunners) and his companion, Hopeful (Anna Newcome), after Atheist attempts to dissuade the pair from pursuing their quest to reach The Golden City (i.e. Heaven). Yet, these pilgrims are made of sterner stuff.
Epic in scale and action-packed, Bunyan’s tale is a far more ambitious adaptation for Saltmine than, say, ‘The Screwtape Letters’, the company’s last Playhouse performance.
Writers Richard Hasnip and David Robinson have nevertheless created an effective new version, set during the Industrial Revolution, seemingly to ground the story in a particular historical period, given that the seventeenth century original does not specify any particular timeframe and is all a dream.
The play remains largely faithful to Bunyan’s text, with the necessary trimming or amalgamation of certain characters and scenes for dramatic purposes. Where the book often reads like an extended sermon, the play’s narrative is more fluid, with greater emphasis on character.
The merely five-strong cast demonstrate their versatility in assaying many roles with a variety of accents, minimal props and costume changes. This was hit and miss; the demon Apollyon and the giant Despair, for example, are disappointingly realised, yet realistically presenting a fire-breathing monster and a giant onstage would probably have been disastrous.
Pilgrims Progress3Nonetheless, the interaction between them and the other characters works well. More enjoyable were less visually distinctive characters, e.g. the deceptively flattering Tom Silvertongue (Craig Edgar). I liked the fact that the two main pilgrims, Christian and Hopeful, were played by young actors and that the latter was female, rather than male in the book, creating a different dynamic between the pair, without a hint of anything more than companionship. Sunner’s performance as Christian was sustained, yet not as natural as some of the other actors’ roles.
One climbing frame-style set stood in for all the locations of Christian’s pilgrimage, which the actors ran, clambered and jumped around in order to bring the different settings to life. As with the more flamboyant characters, various locations, e.g. the bustling Vanity Fair, were also stripped down. Effectively broadening the play’s scope were artist Oliver Pengilley’s haunting animated back projections. A couple more might have helped improve some scenes, such as Vanity Fair but the pivotal moment where Christian finally manages to unshoulder his burden at Christ’s cross was especially powerful. The fact that certain aspects of Bunyan’s original story did not turn out the way I imagined them is perhaps a lesson to be learned about not reading the original text prior to watching a theatrical adaptation of it.

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