A Monk's Tale: the Reformation musical comedy you didn't know you needed
'Don't start an argument and don't mention religion.'
Unless of course you're performing a comedy-musical about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Like, for example, A Monk's Tale – a play which gleefully breaks the British ban on conflict and God-talk as it takes the audience on a hilarious, dynamic and theologically thoughtful adventure. It's not to be missed.
Yes, it's the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which began, symbolically at least, with Martin Luther and his legendary 95 theses. Since such a landmark only comes around once, it's certainly got Protestants excited. Luther's even found new life as a smash-hit Playmobil figurine, proof that you never really know what history will make of you.
So why not bring Luther to the comedy-musical genre? It might not seem an obvious move, but A Monk's Tale writer/director James Cary's ambition is more than vindicated.
The show leaps to the challenge with infectious wit, gusto and charm. Far from a drag, this lean, 59-minute production lights up and burns along faster than a heretic at the stake – but has a happier ending.
It's a three-person play, simply staged, where stars Anna Newcome, Anna Nicholson and Cameron Potts each shine with charisma in their ever-shifting roles. Their comic timing is sharp, they're abuzz with generous energy and crucially, seem to be really enjoying themselves.
The play opens with one character unconvinced about the potential for a musical comedy on the Reformation, summarised as 'Martin Luther got quite cross about quite specific theological things.'
Another enthusiastically chimes in: 'It'll be great!'
After all, the Reformation is a somewhat sombre topic – a weighty story of division, death, and as history goes on, more death. Yet somewhat against the odds, A Monk's Tale really is great.
Firstly, I laughed a lot. In these weary, cynical times, levity is a rare gift – and Cary draws it from an unexpected source. A series of comedic musical numbers thread this story of 'relics, revolt and Reformation'. They won't be spoiled here, but the pieces are energetically choreographed, and packed with lyrical wit. Musical comedian James Sherwood has done superb work.
Taking inspiration from Horrible Histories, the show balances sharp entertainment with thoughtful education. It's open to novices and church outsiders, making the complex simple while casting out old myths and caricatures. Amid the punny gags there's worthy reflection on theology too, shedding light on the conflict that continues to divide the Church.
Because it's a show about Christianity created by a Christian, it's not hard to imagine a cheesy evangelical conclusion that hammers on the importance of fighting for what you believe. Or perhaps an altar-call where you can give your life to Martin Luther. No, this is broad (but not bland), smartly-judged art that should make anyone think – and anyone laugh.
I didn't know I needed an educational sketch-comedy musical about the Reformation in my life, but like Luther before me – I've had a change of heart.
And thanks be to God, the show goes on: a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes in August, followed by a tour of UK churches.
It turns out conflict and religion can be rather entertaining. Don't be a fool, and heed the call: be sure to check this out.
You can see forthcoming dates for 'A Monk's Tale' here.
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