Unless you have some completely water-tight [pun alert] excuse you need to buy a ticket for Benjamin Britten's Noye’s Fludde, to be performed next week in Shrewsbury Abbey. I’ve just been to the walk-through rehearsal and I may have brought back no photographs but I’m telling you, it’s going to be brilliant.
Shrewsbury Abbey is a big place. Plenty of room, you’d think, for cast and choir, orchestra and storm-dancers, animals in their twos, drowning housewives, Noye, his kids, his stroppy wife and God. And yet by the end of the afternoon the Abbey was full to the gunwales - to use a suitably nautical term - and captaining proceedings was freelance director/producer/choreographer, Maggie Love, mike in hand, directing children about where to stand, warning visitors to the Abbey, for their health’s sake, to get out of the storm-dancers’ way.
I perched myself half way down the aisle, close enough not to miss anything on stage. Behind me sat a row of storm-dancers who turned out to be High School girls in ordinary life. They were dressed in blue, with silvery-blue faces and diamante hair bands. On stage more schoolgirls stood about, dressed as housewives with handbags on wrists, gin in back pockets [in some cases] and rollers in hair. Amongst them stood a stroppy diva with a lovely voice. All attitude and big hair, she turns out to be Noye’s wife.
Half way through her solo, Maggie called a halt. ‘Bill,’ she called. A man popped up across the aisle from me. ‘Yes, Maggie?’ he said. Adjustments needed making. Mrs Noye and the schoolgirls stood down from their roles and began to chat. Noye leant against the pulpit and had a word with God. I recognized this God. Who else wore rainbow braces over riotously decorated shirts but my dentist, Gareth Jenkins?
He’s got the voice for God. Deep and rolling, sonorous and Welsh. No sooner did the rehearsal get underway again than he was leaning over the pulpit with God's stern gaze as well. ‘Hear me!’ he demanded, and how could anybody not? Noye heard him, plainly - and started trembling in his shoes. But Mrs Noye didn’t care a jot.
Even when a roll of drums, which had started quietly, grew in strength, she didn’t look that bothered. ‘Take thou thy company,’ God charged in his Sunday-best voice. By now he'd changed, I noticed, into a golden gown and inverted flowerpot black hat. ‘And beasts and fowl with thee take/he and she, mate to mate...' God's voice rose in volume. He filled his lungs. 'It is my liking mankind to destroy,’ he roared.
The orchestra trembled in its shoes. I didn’t blame it. Violins were all a-quiver, tympani a-clattering. Noye had his mac on. ‘Kerie Eleison,’ the choir solemnly intoned. The impending sense of doom was unavoidable. Not even the need for another break could shake it off. This was real drama. It was proper opera, doing what opera is meant to do, getting beneath your rib cage, palpitating your heart and rattling your bones.
With a fanfare of trumpets, the rehearsal was back on. The housewives didn’t appear to have an umbrella between them, but I knew what was coming next, even if they didn’t - and Noye did too. He was trying to drag his wife away, but she didn’t want to leave. Watching the two of them caught up by events beyond their understanding, let alone control, I had to remind myself that this was an ordinary Saturday afternoon, that it was sunny outside, that there’d be X-Factor on the telly tonight, and Strictly.
Another break was called for. Time for Mrs Noye to hoist her dress straight, and for God to come down from his pulpit and stretch his legs. It was nearly four o’clock, and the animals would be turning up soon - one hundred and forty primary school children all needing kitting out in costumes and masks.
Time to press on. ‘We’re ready to start the storm,’ called Maggie, and the orchestra struck up. Housewives unfolded see-through plastic rain-hats. Blue-and-silver dancers rushed about waving banners and sheets of midnight blue silk. In the aisle, a dove and a raven, black and white, flexed their wings. Behind the stage, a tall arched screen filled with images of rain.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ Maggie yelled at her storm-dancers. They weren’t holding their streamers high enough, and God had shed his golden outfit as if he'd had enough of being dressed up, and the back of the Abbey was filling up, and people in the aisles were in danger of being hit by passing waves.
But, with all of that - with all the breaks, and all the bits that needed doing again, and the projection not including everything that it would on the night - I could still feel shivers running down my spine. It was the music that did that to me, courtesy of Shrewsbury’s choir of schoolgirl housewives, and Musical Director, Maureen Powell-Davies' orchestra, and Noye and his family and Benjamin Britten, of course. There's a man who knew a thing or two about writing a tune.
Another break and then the rain began again. More animals came piling through the Abbey doors with their mums and dads. Time to leave, I thought. Better save what was coming next to witness for the first time on the night. At the back of the Abbey, I passed by racks of costumes and piles of bags and coats. On the screen now were upturned palms holding our world in the form of a globe. It was heaving as if in pain, beating like a heart and changing shape. Outside, instead of sunshine [I'm not making this up] it had turned to rain.
Noye's Fludde is part of the celebrations for Benjamin Britten's Centenary. Tickets are still available HERE - but they're going fast and I'm not surprised. Performances will take place on the evenings of Tuesday 22nd October, Wednesday 23rd and Thursday 24th, at 19.00.