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Inspiring YMCA play shown in Norfolk

Soul Machine1
Saltmine’s production of ‘The Soul in the Machine’, the story of George Williams and how he founded the YMCA in 1844 was entertaining, informative and uplifting. Helen Baldry reports.

Commissioned by YMCA and created by Saltmine Trust, The Soul in the Machine is a new production featuring Norfolk-born Freddy Goymer and Joanne McGarva. The show at Norwich Playhouse on May 12 was of local significance as YMCA Norfolk is celebrating 160 years this year.

We meet George as a child on the family farm in Somerset. He is not cut out to be a farmer so in 1841 he moves to London to become an apprentice at a drapers. Here George meets some Christians and is converted. He experiences  hostility at first from his work mates who called him a ‘God bothering moron’ and were not interested in his religious nonsense.

George, however, was eager to tell people about God. He felt moved by the plight of workers and campaigned for early closing to reduce the long hours they had to endure. He was interested in the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of young men and on June 6 1844, the YMCA was formed.
I found myself immersed in the story and thoroughly entertained by the cast of six, who moved very cleverly and convincingly moved between the various parts. There was plenty of humour and singing. At the interval I wondered about the billing of the play ‘for anyone who works’ as up to this point it was all about George’s conversion and the how he came to the point of setting up the YMCA.

Soul Machine2The second half explored the idea of work as ‘the machine’ and how people are treated like cogs in a big machine; there is more to people than their capacity to work. The play demonstrated the isolation people experience when working at a machine – they are cut off from God. The play remained firmly routed in the 1850s and the audience was left to draw the parallel with modern times. It made me think how vital organisations like the YMCA continue to be today – it is just as important to nurture the mind, body and soul in today’s world of iphones, internet and pressure on sectors such as the NHS and education.

Many facts about the YMCA were dropped into the play, and it was informative but didn’t feel like a history lesson as I felt entertained.  The Crystal Palace exhibition provided an opportunity for the YMCA to reach thousands of visitors to London from all over the world and George had the foresight to get 362,000 tracts and leaflets printed. The development of the railways meant that the message spread across the UK. Within just 10 years, YMCAs had been set up across the world.  

The YMCA grew at an astonishing rate. Today there are 58 million members in 180 countries. As an organisation, it continues to thrive today – this can be attributed to some of the values demonstrated in the play such as working together, making the most of opportunities, being driven by faith and not fearing to address injustice.

At the end of the play, Caleb Mitchell, who played George said, “This very night 260 people have been given somewhere to sleep by YMCA Norfolk. I think that’s amazing.”

Pictured above: Caleb Mitchell and Joanne McGarva


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