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PILGRIM’S PROGRESS - C.U.M.S., Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 27 February 1954

Perhaps the most stirring and entertaining musical experience of these post-war years has been provided this week at the Guildhall by C.U.M.S. I am sure Cambridge has never seen the like of it before, and I doubt if even the deftness or expense of Glyndebourne could have bettered it.

Vaughan Williams calls his “Pilgrim’s Progress” a “Morality.” This means, in fact, an oratorio aptly pointed by incidental staging—and a staging in this instance so understanding, so dignified and restrained where restraint was needed, so joyous in moments of exuberance, that it is impossible to imagine any improvement upon it. The producer, Dennis Arundell, and the stage management have worked wonders.

The forces taking part were not unduly enormous, but their deployment gave the impression that they were. Even the orchestra (leader, John Exton), apart from the usual horn troubles, gave an eloquent and grandiose performance. Considering that the show went on almost entirely through the efforts of residents and students past and present of Cambridge, the achievement of such a spiritual and artistic success is a matter for unstinted praise. One trembles to think of the bathos we may endure this time next year. The only major contributor to the occasion who could not be called a Cambridge man is Bunyan himself, but as he was born near Bedford Mr Ord claims him as a “near-local” resident.

There are nine Scenes to this Morality representing the progress of the pilgrim, together with a prologue and epilogue in which John Bunyan starts and finishes reading to us from his book.

John Walker started off a little dubiously, not to say inaudibly, but his later appearance as the Herald was excellent, and as Bunyan again at the end he gave a most moving rendering. Gordon Clyde as the Evangelist, and later a Delectable Shepherd, managed to get an elderly suavity into his voice and bearing that was wholly convincing. It is the first time I have seen a youth pottering about a stage in a false beard without saying “This is an undergraduate acting as an old man.” Anne Keynes, Kathleen Hoff and Alicia Austin sang as the Three Shining Ones who relieve the pilgrim of his burden and accoutre him in his armour. Martyn Hughes as the Interpreter admitted the pilgrim through the wicket-gate, but in spite of his looking and sounding very satisfactory, his words did not seem to get beyond the orchestra.

Act II contains the meeting of Pilgrim with Apollyon. This was at first admirable, with Apollyon’s menials got up in the weirdest and most bestial masks. Perhaps Apollyon should have been a little less of a fidget. His voice coming through loudspeaker from some abyss could have been better managed. It had the plum-in-the-mouth quality typical of train-announcements on railway platforms. The fight between Pilgrim and Apollyon has the most exhilarating music. Though the percussion were having a whale of a time—the drums emulating a cannonade of Napoleonic artillery—this energy was not equalled on stage. Nor need it have been, if the fight had been stylised. But it was neither that nor realistic. Apollyon was soon despatched by a gentle prod dangerously low in his stomach, the which he could have seen coming a mile off (and avoided) if he had been a devil worth half his salt. It is curious that all Pilgrim’s escapes had a facile quality that bereft them of interest.

Act III contains the wonderful scene at Vanity Fair. This was a miracle of colour and imaginative crowd movement. Quentin Lawrence’s décor now came into its own. His delectable mountains were to be a bit dank, and his door to the Celestial City was by no means as celestial as evidently envisaged by the composer, but his Vanity Fair caught the atmosphere to perfection. and together with the costumes borrowed from Covent Garden made a most exciting scene.

Apart from a multitude of singers that space precludes from mention, praise is due to Peter Beale as the Usher, Humphrey Trevelyan as Lord Hate-good, Elster Kay as Mr By-Ends, and Margaret Orr as his wife. But the heroes of the evening were John Noble as the pilgrim, whose voice, diction and bearing were beyond criticism throughout, and Boris Ord, whose evident care and labour in preparation of the performance and actual command of it from the conductor’s rostrum was, to put it mildly, miraculous.

It is an interesting sign of the times that the composer states in a programme-note, “the name Pilgrim is used throughout the libretto, as being of more universal significance than Bunyan’s title”—Christian. This is food for thought.

Peter Tranchell