The Bible (Abridged)

After a week of media chaos, the gathered masses took to the Theatre at the Mill to see the controversial play

What a difference a week makes. Rewind seven days from Wednesday night's debut performance of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged) - and things had gone biblical.

The show, having sold 18 per cent of seats for a two-night run, was cancelled due to outcry from Newtownabbey Borough Council’s Christian councillors, who labeled it offensive and blasphemous.

Following a media storm, a social media campaign (#ThouShaltNotLaugh) and a petition that attracted over 2,700 signatures, the play was reinstated last Monday. And, before you could say amen, the show was not just back on, it was sold out.

So after a week of chaos, the gathered masses took to the Theatre at The Mill on Wednesday to finally see this Red Sea storm-in-a-teacup. Among the audience are some Newtownabbey councillors who didn’t object, and even some members of the clergy. During the past week, co-creator Austin Tichenor said the theatre was his 'temple', so we came in our own form of worship to see what all the fuss was about.

And, well, lo-and-behold The Bible (Abridged) is a suitably unfussy, light-hearted, amusing and utterly disposable riff on the good news. It's an almost quintessential 'bit of craic' - breezy, energetic, silly and, aside from a couple of off-the-cuff jibes at the past week's events, fairly gentle.

The playful production does exactly what it says on the papyrus - an extremely condensed run through the Bible, taking in everyone from Moses to Mary Magdalene. Three extremely hard working performers (Gary Fannin, Richard Ede and David Ellis) energetically fill the stage using only a few props and rapid costume changes to rapidly jump from scene-to-scene.

The gags come thick-and-fast, taking in musical numbers, pop culture references, puns, wordplay and general zaniness. Plenty are funny, but a lot of them are fairly cheap too. This is the kind of show where a shout of 'Pilate!' results in a man coming on stage covered in Howard Hughes style aviator gear; when God waxes wroth, he’s said to give wroth a "lustrous sheen"; while the Book of Genesis provokes a Peter Gabriel joke.

Funny? Often. Clever? Not always. And in terms of risqué humour, it’s more Vicar of Dibley than Father Ted.

But the producers are not aiming for particularly highbrow, they're going for laugh-a-minute yuks and largely succeed in part due to the relentless energy of three talented comedic actors.

It's the fast-paced patter of Fannin, Ede and Ellis that makes the high-points such instant hits: a domestic scene before-and-after the Tower of Babel which shows off some deftly daft multilingualism; a Last Supper spoof with the actors jumping between multiple roles; an elongated 'Old McDonald' number based on Noah's Ark, which sees various members of the Mill's audience on stage.

The action rarely lulls and the actors even manage a couple of references to their off-again, on-again status. The biggest cheer of the night comes with an in-character exclamation of 'why do fundamentalists have no sense of humour?' while a parting shot of 'if you didn't like the show, tell the DUP!' likewise gets a big response.

The play also pulls no punches when pointing out obviously egregious elements of the Bible, such as its depiction and treatment of women.

However while proceedings are largely silly and light-hearted, there’s a ring of truth underneath all the irreverence. The play occasionally stops to consider big questions: the nature of God; the desire and need for faith; the reasoning behind why bad things happen to good people.

There’s a relatable honesty, in dealing with these common feelings of spiritual doubt, which elevates the material beyond just roasting a sacred text and ensures the The Bible (Abridged) is more warm-hearted fun than mean-spirited hatchet job. That it’s ended up as ‘Northern Ireland’s most controversial play’ is a bonus for the producers, but a mystery to most of the audience.