Beggarsbelief's delightful adaptation of Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress features a strong commitment to performers and what they can do, with little to no set and a strong cast of 8 playing all of the roles - an excellently directed piece.
A Pilgrim's Progress is John Bunyan's Christian allegory about reaching heaven and living a pious life - dramatised into a journey that a character called Christian undertakes and the various trials and tribulations he must overcome. This is pretty heavy allegory, with all characters and places named after sins, graces and emotions, but Bunyan's tale is still one of the most popular books of all time and has, purportedly, never gone out of print.
In Beggarsbelief's adaptation, Bunyan's story is kept pretty much intact, although multiple characters have been excised in favour of a clean and clear story - although, despite that, the whole thing still drags a little, and ends rather abruptly. It seems a shame to start with a criticism, but it's the major failing point of the whole piece: in the end, it's just a string of events, loosely held together by Christian's journey, and the result is necessarily episodic and has little to tie the whole thing together. Thus, it's even odder that Beggarsbelief choose to end their adaptation at the end of part one - it's almost as if Christian has failed, and it also bears the cringe-worthy and-it-was-all-a-dream escape.
However, choice of story aside, the way this company choose to tell it is simply outstanding. The cast of eight take on various roles along the journey, and interact freely with the audience - we're meant to understand that these are actors playing parts, and a pleasant marketplace-like atmosphere is quickly established. All of the effects are also handled by the performers, with very little that they aren't creating themselves - for example, making themselves appear larger by throwing their shadows onto a backdrop with a low-angle light. It's all homespun and simple, but done with great effect - at no point better than with Apollyon, the destroyer, created effectively with just a bucket, two arms, two flags and some balls wrapped in material - exceptional stuff indeed.
This is all tied up with some audience interaction - we are spoken to directly, asked to hold props, sometimes even called upon to speak, which is handled effectively (if, a little predictably, some refused to take part). In short, it's nicely directed by Carl Heap, and a credit to a company that trusts in such lo-fi effects.
However, just doing half of the story and dragging through all of the scenes in such a manner does lessen the overall enjoyment - I can't shake the feeling that this is the wrong way of doing this play. This is the kind of piece that suits the outdoors and the marketplace, where the audience can stand and interact, can watch as long as they like and then move on. There's no reason it shouldn't work in a theatre, but it needs condensing and defining - just running along until we've hit the two hour mark seems underthought.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this show again in another form, either in full at some festival or in a more condensed form with both parts - and while I would happily watch this version again, I really would want more of a story arc.