Fantastic Acts: Haddon Wilmer shares his thoughts on Riding Lights’ journey through the Book of Acts

DSC_0494 (1600x1071)The play was fun: clownish, witty, satiric by turns. But we did not laugh much, because it had us working out where the play was going, what was being said, and how we should respond to its challenge.

DSC_0469 (1600x1071)The play is a funny way of reading Acts – could we take it as a model for our groups? Three people on holiday…  Julia the assistant minister in a Church, busy and keen, but frustrated with it all; Chris her younger brother, an actor, cynical about Church and faith, not least because he has been reacting for years against his bossy sister, with her ‘saintly’ status’; he does not like being called ‘gofer’; and Tony, an historian, an enthusiastic reader of Acts, and guide books about historical places, and distraught because his wife has got fed up and left him.

They do the usual things, sun too much, drink too much, argue and apologise – and for the whole week, they do a very unusual thing. They dip into the book of Acts, and they act it out – it is not only Chris who can improvise.

DSC_0472 (1600x1136)They don’t act it to make the past present, as in a historical costume drama; they let the story tell itself in the idioms of contemporary living. So the disciples don’t walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24), they ride in a car, with a Frisbee as the steering wheel, and Jesus is an unknown hitchhiker they pick up. They lend themselves as a medium for the story to tell itself again. Does the story do that, or does it get lost in the fun?

The play states the problem:  Our Church today is not like the first century Church we hear about in the book of Acts in the New Testament. A lame man lay helplessly begging at the Temple gate every day. Peter said to him: I don’t have any silver and gold, but what I have, I give: In the name of Jesus, rise and walk (Acts 3). The man started dancing. In the play, the lame man holds out his hand, croaking his request:  ‘Miracle’. He asks for what he really wants, the restoration of capacity for a full, free life. Julia says to him: ‘I can’t do miracles but what I have, I give you’. She puts some coins in his hand; he throws them back at her.

DSC_0479 (1600x1071)The play encounters the mystery in Acts: the surprise of Holy Spirit, the free God beyond our management. Here, we cannot describe or control: we must wait for the Spirit, let ourselves be contradicted and converted and carried by the Spirit.

Philip in Samaria was like Julia, busy running a big and lively church, and then the Holy Spirit told him to get on the road in the desert where there was nobody (Acts 8). He obeyed, though it seemed a stupid career move.  And there he met the eunuch, travelling back to Queen Candace’s court in Ethiopia, reading the prophet Isaiah but not understanding it. When Philip explained it, he believed in Jesus and was baptised, and went on his way rejoicing. And so Christian faith very early was taken to Africa – the Spirit gets unlikely things done.

Acts tells how the first Christians came to see that the God who came to them in Jesus is the God of all peoples of the earth; and so Christians must be able to break through all the high walls that divide people from each other. So the play tells the story of the ‘second most significant meal’ in the Bible (the first is, of course, the Lord’s Supper). Christians are not different from other people: we love our own high walls, treasuring our identity and security. And Christian leaders may have a special investment in keeping the walls high. Conversion is necessary; and conversion is hard to come by.

DSC_0498 (1600x1071)So it was for Peter, the faithful Jew (Acts 10). Peter is hungry, sleeping on the roof in the heat of the day, and in his dream, he sees a sheet comes down from heaven – and, horror! – it is full of unclean creatures (according to the rules in Leviticus 11, including for example, the horse, the pig and the ostrich). Yet the chef says: Come, Peter, kill and eat. Peter will not: I have never eaten anything unclean. The chef is angry as chefs can be: No one calls my food unclean. Eventually Peter does what he is told. He crosses the boundary and eats, and thus is made ready to go to Cornelius when that Gentile soldier wants Peter the Jew to share the way of Jesus with him and his people.

DSC_0470 (1600x1071)As the play comes towards its end, the theme of reconciling welcome across the deepest divides is expressed in two ways. In Acts, Paul comes to Rome, where he lives in his hired house for two years, welcoming all who come to him, Jew and Gentile, ‘preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, quite openly and unhindered’ (Acts 28. 31). Acts is an artful literary work, deliberately given an ending which is open, wrapping nothing up. It leaves its readers to carry on the story. And in the play, there is a movement of reconciliation for the three people, as they break bread and drink wine on the beach. Chris is still sceptical, but he will not be left out when the bread is given, he will eat with the others knowing what he is doing. Tony has a message on his phone from his wife, asking if he is open to having a conversation, since she has been having second thoughts about breaking up; and Julia, in an extraordinary crisis of penitence, breaks down and cannot drink the wine, because she does not respect and love her companions on holiday and so does not help them to be respectful to her  (I would like to have the script – I cannot remember the actual words here, and they are vital, as the play is so sensitively and precisely phrased throughout).

DSC_0486 (1600x1071)There are too many good things in the play than I can mention here. The puppet jailer in Philippi is fun (Acts 16). Cutting is the scene where the Christians pray for Peter in prison; they are so pious, unbelieving, unexpectant, engrossed in their religious exercises that they don’t have the free intelligence to hear Peter banging at their door, but are rather annoyed at their useless prayers being disturbed.

I can’t omit the remarkable conflation of Acts 2 and Acts 28. Near the end of the evening we are taken back to the beginning of Acts, the day of Pentecost, not mentioned before. The secluded frightened disciples in the upper room are shaken with earthquake, wind blowing, and tongues of flame descending; and then it morphs into the storm which broke the ship Paul and Luke with 274 others and cast them up on the island of Malta, where they were welcomed by the people.

20141013_184653 - Copy (1600x1128)The picture above shows the cast of Fantastic Acts (left to right) John Holden-White, Edith Kirkwood and Daniel Starkie who are accompanied on this seven week tour by Technical expert Dave Robinson.

The Riding Lights Theatre Company is based at the Friargate Theatre in York. Each year it tours extensively giving over 500 performances, runs a Summer School, publishes books, sketches and plays and runs workshops in schools, theatres, village halls and even prisons.

There are many ways we can support the Riding Lights Theatre Company but probably the most effective is to become a member. “Members” it says in the Fantastic Acts programme,”are our lifeblood, making possible the work we do, across the UK, every year”.  To see a full list of tour venues or to find out more about Membership you can call 01904 655317, email or visit the Company’s website at

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