Hornchurch shows its passion

PUBLISHED: 20:17 16 March 2015 | UPDATED: 20:17 16 March 2015




Every five years, Hornchurch hosts an Easter Passion Play to graphically show the story of Jesus’ last days before the crucifixion. John Race shares his thoughts on this striking spectacle

This month, on the evenings of Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday, the fifth Hornchurch Passion Play will take place on the Queen’s Theatre Green, between the Queen’s Theatre and the busy town centre car park by Sainsbury’s supermarket, 
off Billett Lane.

The Hornchurch Passion Play (HPP) first began in 1995 and has been performed about once every five years. 
It is financially supported by local churches, as well as fundraising events and generous donors.

For the 2015 production Kevin Walsh, a professional actor and graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, will direct the play. Kevin played the role of Jesus in the first three HPPs (in 1995, 2000 and 2006). He also played Jesus in the first South Woodham Ferrers version of this Passion Play, which uses the same script.

Kevin says: ‘The main thing for me would be to stress the ecumenical nature of telling the story and the way that subverts all the niceties of theology which divide us and returns us to an encounter with the living, breathing Jesus, who challenges us all to look at the way we are living our lives.’

Kevin wrote the script with the former vicar of St Andrew’s Hornchurch, Rev Hugh Dibbens, now a retired Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral. Hugh wrote most of the longer speeches and Kevin wrote the shorter lines and when they came to complete the final draft they found that their respective contributions fitted together very well. Over the years some lines have been amended and some characters have been changed, but some things do not change. Laurie Bigg has always played the part of Bartimaeus and some members of the choir, which is about 40 strong, have sung at every performance.

Simon Pugsley has been involved in the HPP since childhood and this year he will play the demanding part of Jesus for the second time. He is the right age and really looks the part, as Simon does bear a remarkable resemblance to the French Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau, who was the star of the film Jesus of Montreal.

The high cost of putting on the HPP for just three days has been controversial. Some argue that the money would be better spent on various Christian charities, church-based projects, needy people and local ecumenical activities. The scaffolding, costumes, electrical wiring, lighting and particularly the good quality sound equipment with the employment of professional sound and lighting engineers, involve considerable costs. However, the director and his production team will not allow anything less than good quality equipment to be used as it is vitally important to have excellent sound quality so that the HPP can be heard by thousands on the Queen’s Theatre Green.

Within some churches there are opponents, small pockets of resistance, usually who hold sectarian and exclusive views, who are against ecumenical and inter-church activities. Hardline Protestants, for example, do not believe in working with Roman Catholics. And vice versa applies. However, most churches in the Hornchurch area are strongly committed to the HPP and it could not exist without them.

In fact the HPP has helped to break down denominational barriers. Actors, singers and musicians work together without knowing each other’s church background or tradition. Campion School has provided rehearsal facilities and several students, along with others from local schools, have participated as Roman soldiers, disciples and crowd members. A few former cast members have gone on to become drama students and professional actors.

Some see the HPP as an act of worship or devotion, or an evangelistic outreach which visually communicates the Gospel story, but others look at it in more secular ways as a wonderful community experience and an ideal dramatic event for the Easter weekend.

People have been visibly moved by the HPP and caught up by the occasion. At one performance the actor playing Judas was spat upon by one of the crowd while during the crucifixion and pieta scene people in the crowd were audibly weeping. Quite a few shudder when the nails are driven in, when the cross is lowered into the ground and when the blood flows down the body.

Not only is it painful for Simon to be hung on the cross, but there are also the bitterly cold April evenings to endure, clothed only in a loincloth.

For Canon Dibbens, he feels that part of the success of the HPP is that it has no cringe factor. ‘People are free to come and go as they please. There is no pressure on anyone. It is a gift from God which makes the Gospel message accessible to all. It closes the gap between the Church community and the wider community, giving people an experience of post-denominational Christianity. It focuses on what draws us together, and presents the Gospel without recourse to denominations.’

Find out more

For further details of the Hornchurch Passion Play, please visit the website at www.hpp2015.org/ Thousands are expected to attend this free event and Good Friday tends to be the best attended performance. The play lasts about 90 minutes.

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