The animals went in two by two…to the park

Fluff the skewbald pony carries the robbers’ victim to safety in the Good Samaritan MORTEN WATKINS/SOLENT NEWS

By Sharon Smith
Published 19th August, 2017

An elderly lady parks herself on the bench and is rummaging in her shopping trolley on wheels when behind her a tall slim man with long, wild-looking dark hair starts to rant.

The fellow claims that he is Jesus, and he does bear an uncanny resemblance to the Messiah, but she wasn’t really expecting him to pop up on a Sunday afternoon in August at a public park in Havant, Hampshire. When she turns to look at the man he is pelting people with what appear to be seeds.

In fact the man is the actor James Burke-Dunsmore, who is playing the part of Christ in the open-air Havant Passion Play, Jesus In The Park. As well as playing the lead character, Burke-Dunsmore wrote and directed the production, which uses parables to recount Christ’s teaching and healing.

Burke-Dunsmore, 45, is the only theatre professional in a 50-strong human and animal cast drawn from local churches and farms. He does make an arresting sight as he strides about the grass stage attempting to show the doubters the errors of their ways. Some of us may have last bumped into a Bible at school, so the play helpfully fills in the gaps between the nativity and the crucifixion.

The acting is surprisingly good for a bunch of amateurs. As with human thespians, the animals differed in their approach, says Lizzy Gradidge, a 58-year-old farmer who sourced the animals from her neighbours. Despite initial concerns, there were absolutely no problems with Fluff, a skewbald pony who in the play is owned by the Good Samaritan and who carries the robbers’ victim to safety.

“Fluff’s owner had sold him to someone who then abused him, so she bought him back. She wasn’t sure if he’d manage being in a play with lots of people after that horrible experience, but he was wonderful,” says Gradidge.

More persuasion was needed for Rabbit, a black ewe who appears in the “sheep and the goats” parable in which the sheep are blessed by God for being kind and the goats are cursed.

“I carried a little bag of grass nuts to bribe Rabbit to follow me, which worked well until Friday’s rehearsals, when she refused to budge. I couldn’t understand it until I discovered that she’d knocked over a chicken feeder and was so full that she couldn’t eat any more,” says Gradidge.

Some scenes — such as Ania Torenc’s portrayal of an adulterous woman covered in mud and blood cowering at Christ’s feet, the moment when the mob turns on Jesus and the crucifixion — are very powerful.

Luckily the Rev Jonathan Jeffrey, 54, lightens the mood by hurling bread rolls at the audience in the “feeding the 5,000” parable. “Come on sir, stop loafing around,” he tells one chap as a soft white roll bounces off his head. “Hello madam, are you after a slice of the action?” he asks a lady. “What do you mean what’s for pudding madam?” Jeffrey’s son Jem, 12, cries. “That loaf is a wholemeal.”

Jeffrey provides more comic relief in the great banquet scene when his master orders him to go out and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” to the feast. Jeffrey lunges into the audience.

“Perfect,” he cries as he wraps a towel around a young boy’s eyes and tells his mother to hop lamely, before ordering a tall teenager to hobble on child-sized crutches. The teenager staggers gamely towards the stage. “No need to overdo it son, we’re the actors,” hisses Jeffrey.

Burke-Dunsmore’s portrayal of Jesus has been honed by his having played the part in almost 100 productions to date, including the Wintershall Nativity play and The Passion of Jesus, which was performed in Trafalgar Square. He wrote the script after running workshops earlier in the year.

His ability to extract the best from material that might floor weaker souls has been lauded by his fellow cast members, who range from 86-year-old Bill Floyd as Caiaphas to Savannah Leggatt, aged four.

Burke-Dunsmore’s performance is so accomplished that it is difficult to separate the actor from the Christian. Is he a believer? “An actor’s role is to show that they believe their character’s beliefs,” he parries. He turns the old stories into new scripts to keep them fresh: “It means I’m also learning something new each time, otherwise it would be such a hackneyed performance.”

The production cost about £20,000 to put on — which was mostly from fund-raising activities — and has taken six months of rehearsals. Why did they do it? Jeffrey’s wife Carolyn Owens, 50, says: “It’s about introducing people to a story that they may not be familiar with, but that is available to everyone because it’s their story.”

Gradidge was concerned that they played only to church-goers. However, cast member Martin McGranaghan, 71, says: “As I was waiting to go on stage a little girl was walking past with her mum and friend. On the way back the girl stopped, pointed and said, ‘See, I told you I’d seen Jesus.’ ”

At the end of the play the shopping-basket lady is still watching. A cast member tells the audience: “We’re so pleased the sun shone, we’d been praying hard for good weather.” Exactly.