Anglo-Saxon platitudes

THEATRE The Wuffings Notcutts Nursery, Wickham Market, near Woodbridge, Suffolk

Bring together Europe's largest potting shed, the Year of Opera and Musical Theatre, and a crash course in the history of the Angles, and what have you got? Answer: The Wuffings, an everyday story of Anglo- Saxon royal folk. Soap opera meets historical pageant.

Head of the family is Raedwald, king of the East Angles, with ambitions to be ruler of all of Britain, who was interred in the famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo (just down the road from the potting shed). Married to him is Edith, a kind of low-rent pagan Lady Macbeth, and lurking round her are three even lower-rent Weird Sisters. Except that these are the sisters of wyrd, the Anglo-Saxon concept of destiny.

Raedwald's problem, as the Venerable Bede saw it, was that he couldn't decide whether to be a Christian or a pagan. Having been converted by St Augustine (who sports perhaps the world's earliest pair of sunglasses), he kept two sets of altars at home: The Word versus Wyrd. It was a choice that seems to have been far more political than truly religious. Kevin Crossley-Holland and Ivan Cutting's play (performed by Eastern Angles) is not a sophisticated entertainment but, like some party political broadcast on behalf of the pagans, it continually rams home this historical point about how cynical some of the early Christians' motives were for converting.

The play draws a few sly comparisons between Christian and pagan myths. Edith's disgust at the idea of drinking Christ's blood is juxtaposed with the story of the hero Beowulf sucking blood from the monster Grendel. The god Woden won wisdom by crucifying himself on the cosmic ash tree.

There are also cheeky moments in which the traditional roles of pagans and Christians are reversed: "You need a long spoon to sup with these people," says Edith, contemplating the God squad. And you would. The early Christians are, with few exceptions, portrayed as venial and petty. When Raedwald goes to war against the Northumbrian king, he chooses to fight as "one army under two gods". Sound familiar from Hong Kong?

Whether this fictional Raedwald (Stephen Finegold) would have made the grade in the real world of Anglo-Saxon warrior kings is questionable. Imagine trying to placate a retinue of gold-hungry camp-followers with a raised eyebrow or sarky look. He's no wimp: he swings a sword with the best of them in the sword-swinging scene. He is a bit fey, though, as if always on the point of saying, "Hey-ho, this kingship lark. Stuff that for a game of soldiers."

Edith has a bit more spunk, but gets little chance to use it. And that's part of the problem. Anglo-Saxon history is intrinsically interesting, but the domestic life of the Wuffing family is really quite dull. You want the Borgias. This is more like the Archers.

It does look magnificent. A 90ft-long sandy beach is littered with the type of ironwork (cauldrons, silvery birdbaths, burning braziers) you might find in Islington's trendier furniture shops. There's a lot of use made of old church pews, which are shuffled around to create boats, walls and even a burial mound.

There's one thrilling moment when an external door opens to reveal a furnace of red light, from which a blacksmith emerges, plunging his sword into one of the birdbaths with an audible sizzle. But, generally, The Wuffings is surprisingly short on spectacle: more blood, gore, woad and fire, please. More wuffing and puffing. And less of Pat Whymark's music (though beautifully sung), which crosses the Anglo-Saxon bards with Joan Baez. Now that's an unfortunate hybrid, even for a potting shed.

To 27 July. Box office: 01473 211498

Adrian Turpin

Arts and Entertainment

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