Considered as one of the greatest pieces of religious literature, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Process is given a playful and artful adaption by Carl Heap in Beggarsbelief’s A Progress. Centering on Christian, played wonderfully by Matthew Jewson, we follow his journey as he travels from his hometown, the ‘City of Destruction’, to the ‘Celestrial City’ atop Mount Zion. For it is here, facing the gates of Heaven, Christian will be forgiven for the sins he has found whilst reading the book in his hand, more commonly seen as The Bible. Along his way, and burdened by sins that weigh him down, Christian meets a whole host of characters that join him, fail him, or set him back. It is only with Hopeful that he finishes his journey, although (spoiler alert) with any good story comes the wake up, which happens quite literally with a ‘it was all a dream’ ending – how frustrating, but unavoidable.
A Progress really is an enlightening experience for its audience. Heap’s adaption is bursting with playful twists upon Bunyan’s original, making it accessible to a modern audience, which is greatly helped through his equally playful direction. Calling upon Brechtian techniques, there is never a moment of disengagement within A Progress; we sit within the heart of the piece with lights on, cast engaging with us, and if theatrics are used, they are playfully humourous. Heap strips back much of the action, using minimal props to give an essence of a scene or location, which does put pressure on the cast, but they rise to the challenge with vigour.
If the direction wasn’t enough to engage, then Heap’s adaption certainly does. Whilst religion has never played a large part in my life, I couldn’t help but be taken with Bunyan/Heap’s characters, that test the moral judgements of Christian. From Mistrust to Prudence and Despair, the depth of intelligent and thought provoking questions that are raised and questioned twice over is invigorating. A Progress never feels like a lecture, but it does tickle away at your beliefs.
Jewson’s Christian is quite the lead who never quite has time to leave the stage to catch his breath. Thrown into the performance, Jewson does well to bring out the conflict within Christian. Whilst the full cast as an ensemble were strong, a particular joy could be found in Holly Campbell’s delightful portrayal of Hopeful, along with her beautiful singing in the chorus harmonies. Likewise Christopher Jamieson’s Bunyan as the narrator of our story keeps A Progress engaging and on pace.
If there is fault to be found with A Progress, it comes from some of the individual songs that Heap has carried through the piece. There is no knocking the beautiful harmonies the ensemble make as a whole, but some weaker voices struggled and it does show. However, setting aside a few musical tweaks, there is much to be found and enjoyed within the piece itself. There’s some imaginative staging as the Devil appears or a Giant emerges to trap Christian in his travels. It feels as if Heap has really found the fun and inventiveness within his direction, and you can’t help but be swept up with this. It’s a feat of storytelling, and it really is a hidden gem at the Yard Theatre, which I am glad to see is back on top form after the potential closure last year. As a piece of theatre, Progress hits all the right marks. Clever, engaging and bursting with passionate performances.
Progress is playing at The Yard Theatre until 1st September. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.