Thursday, 1 May 2014

THEATRE REVIEW: The Bible (Abridged)

The controversial retelling of The Good Book follows the path of a haphazard, devil may care Cabaret act – and it's executed rather well

The story of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's production of The Bible - properly titled The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged) - and its initial arrival in Northern Ireland is well documented. Efforts to ban the play succeeded only in enhancing the publicity surrounding it - you have to wonder if the anti-play campaigners had ever truly learnt the lesson of Father Ted's "The Passion Of St. Tibulus" - and a lark became a landmark, a probable piffle a popular phenomenon.

As The Bible finds its way to Derry-Londonderry's Waterside Theatre, one cannot help but be curious regarding what all the fuss was about. Yet there's only a small-ish audience in attendance. Perhaps it's not so notorious after all? We shall see. Because I don't think one should expect the larger-than-life situation humour of Father Ted or the cutting satire of Life Of Brian from The Bible. One should just hope to be entertained.

And entertain is exactly what the Roy- sorry, Reduced, Shakespeare Company do, in the most Mel Brooksian way possible. In their abridged, two-hour “re-imagining” of the entirety of the Good Book, the committed, likable acting trio of Richard Ede, David Ellis and William Meredith mix pop cultural references, heavy innuendos and rapid fire gags with Biblical talk, without the slightest trace of subtlety. The style and tone of the script, penned by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, are akin to Brooks too; The Bible is almost entirely oblivious to trends. No matter how funny The Bible might be, and it can be very funny, who on earth would want to resurrect (pun intended) the popular but dated improvisation of Whose Line Is It Anyway? in 2014? It is only when you read that the play originated in 1995 that everything makes sense, though to be fair, aspects of the dialogue have been updated in accordance with the present day.

The mostly low brow laughs come thick and fast in a collage of sketches that sometimes branch out into genuinely memorable inventiveness. If you've somehow wondered if computers existed in the Garden Of Eden, what the Top Ten Rejected Commandments were (one, tellingly, is "Thou Shalt Not Ban The RSC in Newtownabbey"), if Jonah of the Whale was in a band, if there were any funny bits in the book of Job, how Jesus performed miracles or what Pontius Pilate really looked like (to name but a handful of things) you'll find all the answers here in unexpectedly amusing ways. We, the audience, are not immune from it either: the moment where the tale of Noah's Ark is re-enacted with a handful of spectators as "animals", everyone else as sinners, and the tune of "Old McDonald" is rather priceless.

It's easy to see why this Bible has been so appealing to audiences. This is far more than The Bible, Abridged – it is The Bible by way of a cabaret act, Ede, Ellis and Meredith knowing their strengths as hyperactive comedians, entertainers and even musicians, and playing them up shamelessly. If their take on the Old Testament probably spends a little too much time on Genesis – and I'm not talking about Peter Gabriel and company, although the actors certainly reference them – it is worth it both for the general quality of the humour and a means of the trio finding their way when it's time to recount the New Testament. By that point, songs like "Personal Jesus" and "Spirit In The Sky" are being heard over the theatre's speakers, indicative of the play's aforementioned lack of subtlety. But there need not be any. This isn't a heavy play, nor, I believe, was it ever meant to be; the RSC have set out to be funny, lively and a little educational. And they've succeeded.

The Bible (Abridged) tours Ireland until May 10. For more information, visit the Reduced Shakespeare Company's official website.