Busy Women

November 17th 2014 is a date that will be recorded in the history of the Church of England. It was the day when, after years of wrangling and discussion, the legislation enabling women to become bishops was finally signed and sealed.

I will remember the day, not because I whooped for joy and drank champagne (I’d done that in July when Synod passed the legislation), but because that evening I went to see Made in Dagenham the musical – a recent addition to the West End, and a story that has unnerving similarities with the women bishops campaign.

It was a free ticket courtesy of a friend who occasionally passes such things my way. Her greeting, as she joined me in our amazing, middle of the second row seats, was along the lines of: “isn’t this a good day!!” – and I, in my idiotic way, thought she was just talking about the imminent musical watching! But no, she was celebrating the demise of the stained glass ceiling!

Made in Dagenham backdrop

The musical is excellent – let’s get that out of the way first of all. I highly recommend it to all those of a feminist, musical loving persuasion. I’m often dubious about great films making the progression to the stage, but this one is up there with Billy Elliot – just replace tutu wearing Geordies, with overall wearing Essex girls. It’s the only musical I’ve ever come across to include a number on the subject of quantitive easing. A number featuring a toe-tapping Harold Wilson no less! It does the politics brilliantly – poking a lot of fun at the PM, but letting Barbara Castle be effortlessly wonderful.

Its final number probably would have had me standing up and cheering (appropriately, it’s called ‘Stand Up’) on any day, but on this day when the women of the Church of England had secured their own gender-based victory, it was all I could to stay in my seat and in control of my faculties! I wanted to shout to the entire theatre that I knew how these women represented on stage felt – we’d done it!! Nearly all my decorum vanished in that moment.

Made in Dagenham tweet

Even the star of the show appreciated the occasion! 

The events of Made in Dagenham occurred in 1968. Here I was FORTY-FOUR years later celebrating a victory of similar proportions! How did it take so long?? What on earth has the Church of England been doing all this time?? And, most importantly, when will this struggle get its own musical?!?

Of course, many of us know what the church has been doing over the decades. It’s been making progress – but slowly, so as not to cause alienation, division or schism. It’s been pondering theologically the question of whether women could hold this position. Its bureaucratic cogs have been turning slowly, first approving women priests twenty years ago, then battling over the episcopacy. Then, this week…

This week we’re celebrating again. On Wednesday, it was announced that Libby Lane will be the very first female bishop in the Church of England. When I started writing this post last week, speculation was rife as to who and where this would happen. [I’d hoped for Gloucester – purely because of my bias towards its cathedral!] The story isn’t over with the signing of the legislation or the first appointment – in fact, a new one is just beginning…

Spontaneity versus planning

I’m of the opinion that one can be both a fan of the well planned, and inclined towards spontaneity.

I like a good plan. I like to know where my life is headed. I like to know things in advance.
But, I also like having the space into diary to be spontaneous. Or, rather, to have the space in which to be spontaneous. A too-full diary means saying no to fun things that might be last minute, and that would be sad…

This past weekend was an excellent example of this dichotomy. Since January, theatre tickets had been booked for Sunday & Monday. An empty diary for Friday night and some late Thursday night ticket booking allowed for a spontaneous trip to the theatre.

April Musical FunMormon, Commitments & Matilda. Am I annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the outside of The Cambridge Theatre? You bet I am! 

There is a myth that theatre in the West End is unaffordable and difficult to do at the last minute. Admittedly, ‘affordable’ is subjective, but I consider anything £25 or under to be good value. (I ought to confess that I have also been very lucky in having friends over the years who have secured freebies, so I’m spoilt.) Our tickets on Friday were £20 + booking fee – and they were good.

What follows is some wisdom I’ve amassed regarding theatre going in London. It’s my personal opinion (obviously), but some of it might prove to be useful…

Last Minute Tickets
It’s never too late to book tickets. (Well, until the show starts, obviously.) Some of my favourite theatre-going moments were the result of spontaneity. Like £15 tickets to A Chorus Line, less than 2 hours before curtain up. We should have been up in the gods, but ticket sales were low and the upper circles were closed – we ended up in row D of the stalls and had a jolly good time. Tickets were courtesy of the ticket booth inside Leicester Square station (thank you sibling’s out of work actor friends…) and the moral is: never be afraid to ask what the cheapest deal is!

Some shows (not enough, in my opinion) run a lottery for their front row before each performance. It’s a regular occurrence on Broadway, but so far the only shows I know to have done it in London are Legally Blonde and The Book of Mormon – and I’ve benefitted from both. The deal is, you arrive at least 2 hours before the performance, fill in a form & await the drawing of the ‘winning’ forms, which give you the right to bag a bargain. I got Legally Blonde tickets on my first attempt; Mormon ones on my fifth – it can take dedication and good chunks of free time in central London.

Often, there are no ‘bad’ seats
Our £15 Chorus Line tickets were sold to us with the words “there are no bad seats at the Palladium”. One of the tricks to bargain theatre going is getting to know the seating plan. Obviously, the ‘best’ views are the most expensive tickets – but look around. This genius website lets you read reviews of specific seats in specific theatres, rating the view. You might think that sounds ridiculous, but thanks to it, I scored a £20 seat at Billy Elliot, next door to a £60 one. The difference? I supposedly had a restricted view – but the website informed me that the view was fine.

Friday night’s choice was another restricted view (thanks to a ridiculous pillar). We couldn’t check my website friend, but we took the risk – and won. The view was fine, being in row I of the stalls helped a lot (I like being able to see faces), but also, the two seats next to us remained empty, so we scooted over in the interval. You never know when you might get lucky…

Know when to compromise
The 2nd show of the weekend was Matilda, which I’d seen over 2 years ago. But Morv (who I was accompanying to The Book of Mormon for show 3) hadn’t seen it, and we thought we’d fit a performance in. Mormon tickets are pricey (unless you do the lottery), so we didn’t want to pay too much – so ended up on the second from back row of the gods. Morv was desperate to see it, so any seat at all was good for us, even if it meant enduring a Sunday afternoon matinee with a lot of children! (Who, incidentally, behaved beautifully.)

As mentioned, Mormon tickets are pricey and require advance booking (unless you can manage the lottery). Having attempted 3 lotteries with Morv last year, booking tickets had to be the way forward (she lives in Durham, so does not fall into the ‘large periods of time in central London’ category), and we got ours back in January. Booking proved to be tricky, given their policy of not letting you book 2 tickets if it leaves 1 on its own. Plus, it’s the hottest ticket in town and is priced as such (airline style, so prices rise with demand). But, we compromised on view – going for 2 seats in a box that had some form of restricted view. Yes, we compromised WITH A BOX! It was a good compromise – the only bit we couldn’t see was the far end of our side, and very little happened there. Plus, seats in the box (all 4 of them) moved, you could lean out, and it was fine. We didn’t ask how much the couple who joined us had paid for their tickets, given as they’d bought them the night before…

Mormon boxYes, I took a photo of our box. Don’t judge me – Morv took a video of the walk down our own corridor…

Take a risk
Yes, I’d seen Mormon & Matilda before – I’d really enjoyed both of them the first time and would happily see them again – but Friday night’s offering was The Commitments (currently at the Palace Theatre). I’m on intimate terms with the soundtrack (thanks in part to several years singing a Commitments Medley in a youth choir), but never got around to watching the film. Ultimately, I knew it was likely to be fun – and it was. Great music, not much of a plot, lots of cheese – but a great night out. I got to have quality time with a friend and we left the theatre singing the tunes. Good times. There is a lot on in the West End. Some of it is dross (you will not catch me in the queue for Dirty Dancing, for example), but there’s a lot of good stuff.

Take Gin 
Or Pimm’s. Those cocktails in cans are frightfully useful in theatre-going situations. I know how to be über classy…

Tweet
This final tip’s a little niche. Ever since our first trip to see Legally Blonde, Morv and I have had a soft spot for its leading man. This actor now happens to be playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda – this fact had absolutely nothing to do with our choosing to see it, it’s pure coincidence. Over post-matinee dinner, I tweeted a genuinely well-meant compliment on his performance and became slightly giddy when he replied. I am very easily pleased.

Gaumond Matilda tweet

The Les Misérables Mass

As I mentioned earlier in the week, at least one of the Greenbelt sessions I reviewed for the Church Times was worthy of more than the 150 words I submitted to the editor. Nothing over the whole weekend provoked more interest on Twitter than the Les Mis Mass – admittedly, this may be because I live-tweeted it, I’ve yet to meet a single person who hasn’t been intrigued/horrified by the concept. Thus, it deserves a little more of an explanation than I was able to give at the time.

Les Mis Mass Tweets

Anyone who has listened to sermons on a fairly regular basis over the last 8 months has almost certainly heard a sermon in which Jean Valjean and the plot of Victor Hugo’s novel has featured – I heard one (that was fairly decent) in Westminster Abbey the Sunday after Easter. This trend irritated me slightly, what with the novel having been published in 1862 and the musical nearly 3 decades old, these were not new themes, simply a Hollywood bandwagon to be jumped upon. However, the mass was different…

To be honest, I signed up to review it not really knowing what to expect. I went with an attitude of “well, I like Les Mis and I like communion, so what could go wrong?”, and only minutes before it began discovered a little more detail about the format. This was no Les Mis singalong, the mass was a thoughtful re-interpretation of the traditional sung eucharist, using tunes and themes familiar from the musical.

Les Mis is well-suited to such a setting. The themes of forgiveness, redemption and salvation sit well with the similar themes of the eucharist. If you’re a fan of a sung eucharistic setting, then you can’t do much better than the music of Boubil & Schönberg. (Well, with the exception of Bach, Mozart, Handel…) To be honest, I’m rather surprised that no one had thought of it sooner – but it took Transcendence (an alt.worship community based at York Minster) to develop the concept into what we experienced at Greenbelt.

And it was a popular one. When I arrived, ten minutes before it was due to start, the queue was 100’s of metres long – and the room was already stuffed with people. My fabulous Press Pass got me in past through the crowds (I don’t feel guilty about that, it’s exactly what it was intended for) and I secured a spot on the floor that was nearer the back than I might have liked. It was unfortunate that someone took the decision to ask the congregation to stand so that another 150 people could enter, as it meant that only the first couple of rows could see the screens with the rather crucial liturgy on them. [Greenbelt, don’t over-rule your venue managers in such situations. The room was already packed and like a sauna – the event should have been in a larger venue. Rant over.]

Despite the crowds, the temperature, the fact that it was 9.30pm and I was existing on little sleep and low blood sugar levels, I was surprised at how quickly I found myself in a worshipful state of mind. That says a lot for the way in which the service was conducted. It was dramatic, but no more so than worship in a high church context. The singing didn’t feel that much different than singing a regular sung eucharist (in fact, at one point the regular sung responses were used), although sometimes the lyrics were a tight fit to the tunes and occasionally it wasn’t entirely clear what the congregation was meant to be doing (the obscured screens didn’t help). The team could possibly have done with a more confident vocalist leading the congregation, but singing skills aren’t always the most important aspect of leading a eucharistic service.

Les Mis MassLes Mis Mass: celebrated. (Credit.)

For me, the fact that we sang familiar words to familiar tunes (tunes which have always had the ability to tug at my heartstrings) made it all the more meaningful, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the meditation on a pipe cleaner man section. To be honest, given the amount of connection between the readings (Job 33:23-25 & Luke 18:9-17) and Hugo’s text, I’d have preferred something that linked them all together. But the idea of manipulating pipe cleaners is at least one to file for future reference. Oh, and the team missed a trick by not using baguettes as the bread element – baguette and vin rouge would have been genius!

However, there was one thing that destroyed the holiness of the experience for me and left me ranting. (In fact, I ranted so hard in the beer tent afterwards that I was barely coherent in my views on the service itself.) I had the misfortune of sitting adjacent to a group of student-types who appeared to have musical theatre inclinations – given away by the fact that one was wearing a Les Mis amateur production t-shirt, and that the group was singing along in harmony before the service had even started. Now, I am an ardent musical theatre fan and have been devoted to Les Mis since the age of 13, but I also know the difference between a singalong and an act of worship. Singing the liturgy lustily is fine; singing as if you’re on a West End stage is not. I finally lost my rag during the distribution of the elements. For some reason an instrumental version of Coldplay’s Fix You was playing and this group sang along, in not particularly great harmony. When they launched into a second verse, I’d had enough and quietly asked them if they realised that this was an act of worship, that people might be praying and could be disturbed by their noise – they agreed to stop. Seconds later, the band began singing along and one of the boys turned to me with a gleeful “see, they’re doing it now!” to which I felt the only valid response was: “yes, but they’re leading the service and you’re not, so shut up!”. Perfectly reasonable, surely? (I did exchange looks with fellow worshippers before intervening…)

Les Mis Mass screenEnding the service with a ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ recessional.

Annoying MT fans excepted, it was an interesting experience and one I’d contemplate trying to replicate at some point. I really don’t think it lessens the meaning of the act of worship, and if it connects with new people then surely that’s a good thing? For ages, I’ve been plotting some form of musicals-inspired worship and now I think it might be doable. It has to be the right musical though, I suspect Grease would not work.

Mission and Musicals

So, this happened:

Mormon joySummer frizz, right there. (In a moment of vanity I released my hair from its bun for the photo.) 

Rather optimistically, my July bucket list included mention of The Book of Mormon – a musical I’ve tried to see four times in the last couple of months, but as yet, had not managed to. (The soundtrack has been played so many times I’m pretty much word perfect.) The thing is, it’s the most popular musical in the West End. It’s instigated airline pricing (tickets go up in price as demand increases) and you need to book months and months in advance. A while ago, a friend offered me a spare ticket – the catch? Its £95 price tag.

However, it has brought with it from Broadway the tradition of holding a lottery prior to every performance, with the front row up for grabs for the very reasonable price of £20. [Keen readers and friends may remember that only Legally Blonde has done this in the West End. I got lucky with that show on my first attempt.] I’d entered the draw four times previously, to no avail (although the process is a fun one), but on my fifth attempt got lucky – very lucky.

For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon was the work of the creators of South Park (and in turn, two of my favourite soundtracks – South Park: The Movie and Team America) and the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q. If you know anything about any of those TV programmes/movies/musicals, you’ll begin to understand what the nature of the show is. It is not an advert for the Mormon church, or really, any church that does what’s viewed by the secular world as ‘mission’. Two young Mormon men head out on their two year mission, finding themselves in a Ugandan village where no one cares about God or Mormonism…

The opening number of The Book of Mormon as the opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards

I loved it. The front row didn’t mean an obscured view or neck craning – it meant being so close to the cast that their sweat practically dripped on you. The staging wasn’t quite what I’d assumed from the soundtrack; the plot was slightly different than I’d figured out; the costumes and dancing were awesome; the missionaries were hot… I could go on. I knew (even though I couldn’t see them) that every member of the full house audience was having a whale of a time.

I loved it, and yet at times, I had a strange sense of misgiving. Should a trainee vicar really be enjoying a musical that pokes fun at religion? [Basically, yes. I’ve just written a piece on Threads about this.] What about people I have a lot of respect for who happen to be Mormon – like favourite blogger Courtney – would they be offended that I’d seen it and enjoyed it? [Interestingly, the Mormon church has used it as an opportunity to promote itself. Any interest in Mormons is good interest, apparently, and a campaign to ‘ask a Mormon’ appeared on the escalators of Piccadilly station when the show opened.] Then there was its depiction of Uganda which was inaccurate and stereotypical – shouldn’t the producers have known better? [Probably, but I guess it’s a plot device.]

But I came up with a theory. Yes, the show poked fun at Mormon missionary methods – ringing doorbells and speaking from the same script – but in doing this, it became a fascinating exploration of how to do mission contextually. In many ways, the things the missionaries get up to reminded me of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible which tells the tale of a missionary family in 1960’s Congo doing things that would make modern day missiologists’ hair stand on end! Adapting to context? I don’t think so! There’s a brilliant scene just after the Elders reach Uganda, where they try to go door to door, ringing doorbells to speak to people – only to discover that Ugandan huts don’t have doorbells.

It’s only when Elder Cunningham begins to adapt the Book of Mormon to the villagers’ concerns that they start to come alongside the Mormons. They are threatened by a local war lord who wants all the women of the village circumcised; people believe sex with virgins will cure AIDS; and they are all threatened by disease – quite reasonably, the Ugandans ask what Joseph Smith has to say about all these things. Of course, FGM and AIDS aren’t mentioned in the scriptures, so Elder Cunningham (who’s a self-confessed fantasist) makes things up so that it does – throwing in some Star Trek and Star Wars references along the way. He lies, but in doing so, is actually beginning to contextualise the gospel he’s trying to share.

Obviously, lying in order to make a message relevant isn’t right and that’s not what I’m suggesting mission ought to be. But, we do know that Jesus would – for example – have spoken out on how to prevent dysentery, had he known how and had it been a major issue in 1st century Palestine. [For all I know, it might have been!] Basically, if we’re to learn one important theological lesson from this musical, it’s that we should approach mission not like clean-cut, try-hard Elder Price, but like short, fat and geeky Elder Cunningham – only with less of the fantastical fusion of scripture with sci-fi. [Oh, and there are always theological lessons to be learnt from musicals, seriously.]

Ultimately, we just need to truly believe…

You *need* to watch this – you’ll laugh, I promise. (Again, from the Tonys, this time in 2011.)

Friday Fun returns

Hoorah! After the irony of missing the delivery of my new broadband router because I was in the café three doors down using their wifi, I successfully collected and installed it this morning – in time to put together a little bit of fun for Friday.

But first, can I share with you the ridiculousness of my Friday morning trip to the Royal Mail depot? Honestly, why are these things never simple? Fortuitously, yesterday I missed both the router and my Olympic Park tickets (which arrived at the old flat), so I was able to kill two birds with one stone. Genius. Well, genius, until I handed over the cards to the woman at the counter, who identified several issues:
1. One person with two cards but delivered to two different addresses.
2. Could ‘Liz Clutterbuck’ and ‘Elizabeth Clutterbuck’ be the same person?
3. Why did my ID say ‘Miss’ yet one package was addressed to ‘Mrs Liz Clutterbuck’.

Jeez… I should probably just explain the last one (I’m sure you can figure out the others). Somehow, TalkTalk have decided I’ve got married. Neither me nor the church administrator who set up the account can work out how this happened – suffice to say, I am getting none of the benefits of being married. [When I mentioned this on Twitter, a friend who happens to have used my Eurostar account recently reported that they have me listed as ‘Mr Clutterbuck’ – also have no idea how that happened.]

Anyway, so, the fun…

First up, some classic TfL goodness. I suggest you think of these when despairing of London transport during the Olympics. Over the last couple of weeks some new variations on the classic tube map have appeared. One makes use of the Bible, while the other proves that using the tube is as simple as A, B, C:

For the full-size version, check out this pdf.

The latter map is clearly something that I would consider suitable for hanging on the wall of my offspring’s nursery. Absolutely adore it! 
Combining my love of Twitter, maps, church and beer, here’s a delightful infographic that illustrates the frequency the words ‘church’ and/or ‘beer’ were tweeted in US counties during a week in June. Makes for very interesting reading: 
I particularly like the fact that during the week in question, I was tweeting from the US and therefore I contributed to it with my occasional tweets about Texan beer. I know for sure that during that week I tweeted more about beer than I did about church. 
Finally, something that combines my love of public transport with my love of spontaneous musical moments. It’s a little old, but it retains its goodness and should – unless you have a heart of stone – bring a smile to your face this afternoon. The friend who shared it with me did so with the words “your camp man alter ego might enjoy this…”, I’m not sure I have such an alter ego, but I certainly enjoyed it.