Tonbridge to host Kent's first Passion Play

PUBLISHED: 22:40 19 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:16 26 February 2013

Tonbridge to host Kent's first Passion Play

Tonbridge to host Kent's first Passion Play

On Good Friday, 29 March 2013, a free community performance of the Easter story will take place in front of ancient Tonbridge Castle

Tonbridge to host Kents first Passion Play

On Good Friday, 29 March 2013, a free community performance of the Easter story will take place in front of ancient Tonbridge Castle

For many people, chocolate eggs and a mysterious bunny rabbit are the quintessential symbols of the Easter period. But for a great many more, the events of Jesus death and resurrection three days later is the main cause for celebration, a story that has transcended centuries.

This month, Tonbridge plays host to the towns very own interpretation of the 2,000-year-old chronicle. Featuring a cast of more than 70 actors, director Helen Longley hopes to accurately depict Jesus historic last moments and in doing so engage the whole community in and around this West Kent town.

The Tonbridge Passion Play, produced by Tonbridge Area Churches Together, is the first of its kind to be performed in Kent. The public is invited to experience a free, outdoors theatre production incorporating the towns historic castle and celebrate an Easter festival many fear is losing its roots in British society.

Helen, a practising Christian since the age of 15, takes inspiration from Peter Hutley, who puts on an annual outdoor play at his Wintershall residence in Surrey.

Peter wrote and produced his first play in 1990 and, after suggestions from avid fans, produced the first Passion Play in 1999 which even reached Londons Trafalgar Square in 2012. Thousands gathered to watch the 100-strong cast that included a donkey and horses.

When Peter Hutley put on his first Life of Christ, I took a friend and then each year, Ive taken somebody and weve sat on the grass and watch this amazing spectacle, says Helen.

I used to think, wouldnt it be amazing if ? Never thought it would happen in Tonbridge and then last February I attended the first-ever Passion Play conference in London. That really inspired me and Ive just felt the Holy Spirit guiding the way.

Plans emerged in early 2012 to replicate the play and since then Helen has worked tirelessly to bring in members of the community to participate in what she sees as a great opportunity to promote Tonbridges cultural and religious imprint.

People have come forward unexpectedly and at just the right moment. When I thought we werent going to have a set built, Steve Kearns, who works as a carpenter with the local YMCA, appeared. And when I thought I didnt have a stage manager, my daughter said shed been chatting with the stage manager of a local community play. It was all just falling into place.

Tonbridge Castle makes the perfect venue with all the action happening in front of the main gateway, the audience gathering on Castle Lawn below. Helen says: Its central, its a wonderful venue. The gatehouse, to me, is the gateway into Jerusalem. To begin with, I had very ambitious ideas: the cross was going to be on the high street with people moving all over town and the audience would follow, just as it would have happened 2,000 years ago. Then I realised that I needed to scale down and the advice from everyone was to just keep it simple.

The audition process brought in many volunteers from all walks of life, including Christians, non-Christians and those somewhere in between. With several big roles up for grabs and several important non-speaking parts, it was vital that Helen didnt let egos get in the way of her overall finish.

We prayed about it a lot. We prayed for the people that God had chosen would come. Its not like waving a magic wand, its just really praying for wisdom and discernment. My aim all the way through has been to draw in people from the community.

The biggest issue is who would fit into the big mans sandals? Although initially concerned that there wouldnt be anybody willing, let alone commanding enough to play Jesus, all those fears evaporated on the second day of auditions.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man and it was Tom Holland of Tunbridge Wells who came along after being told by his former drama tutor about the Passion Play. He was instantly snapped up.

Helen says of the 23-year-old: An absolute catch. I think its wonderfully exciting that many of the cast are under 30 - its giving the whole play a kind of life and vibrancy and youth thats very appealing. So Im very happy with Jesus and with Tom.

A former Hugh Christie Technology College student, Thomas has acted since primary school. He studied Performing Arts at GCSE and A-Level and then joined a touring theatre company.

Ive performed at the Edinburgh Fringe with the Backbone Theatre Company from Southborough. Saltmine, based in Dudley, gave me the opportunity to perform all around the country, and sometimes outside of it, he says.

Right now, the play is taking up a lot of my time. There is a lot to learn and I want to ensure that I do the Son of Man justice.

Tom plans to study primary school education at university in September and when not at rehearsals volunteers at his churchs caf Manna in Tunbridge Wells.

He adds: I also involved in several prophetic projects and teaching, which is grat fun and also gives me a chance to spread the words of our Father and help others understand them.

The inclusion of the community is an important aspect to the entire production. People have stepped up and requested a role, something Helen was only too happy to embrace.

Ive had people who have never done anything like this before ask to help, she says. People like Linda Jones who is gathering props, Peter and Diane Thorpe who have been so brilliant taking on production and wardrobe, the brave public who have come along just to be part of the costumed crowd, which is so important. Their role will be to influence the audience, get them involved.

We want to attract people who might never have set foot in a church before. If the costumed crowd can influence the crowd as the play unfolds, they might hopefully learn something, even if its just the story of Easter.

There is added pressure with the performance being outside. Everyone is on stage at all times since there are no wings. Whenever the actors are not in a scene, they will be stood in a frozen tableau, which could become more literal, given the notorious March weather.

Helen understands the risks, but believes they are worth it. Youve obviously got the weather, you have the fact that its a public place, it isnt closed off. People bring their dogs to the park or there may be children crying, a plane flying overhead or traffic going by. The actors have to deal with it by projecting far more than if they were in a closed venue.

I feel it has to be outside, however, without restriction, a big stage and the audience able to move freely around and follow this amazing spectacle.

After the Passion Play why not explore this historic market town further?

Where to eat and drink: There are countless pubs and coffee shop chains in the high street, but here are few individual places that Kent Life recommends.

The Olive Room, 160 High Street, TN9 1BB, 01732 368877. Formerly Antonias, this modern Italian bistro is at the castle end of the High Street and is a bit of a hidden gem. Look out for the excellent signature dish of gambaretti - a blend of king prawns, spinach and spaghetti.

Finch House, Pavilion Shopping Centre, High Street, TN9 1TE, 01732 367770, orders 01732 771 775. This newish and independent coffee shop now with upstairs dining area, has proved immediately popular with locals. Its also a member of Produced in Kent, so you know the food is locally sourced (and definitely tasty).

El Mariachi, 22 Avebury Avenue, 01732 771106. Recently opened, this Mexican restaurant has already achieved a good name locally. With a large selection of sombreros to wear while you eat, its penchant for strong cocktails and spicy Latin food makes it a fun place to take a group of friends

Where to shop: famously well equipped with charity shops and hairdressers, Tonbridge does have its independents if you know where to look, including the following. Check opening times over Easter weekend before you visit.

Tonbridge Farmers Market

A finalist in the 2013 Taste of Kent Awards less than two years since it first opened, find this hugely popular market at Sovereign Way car park (TN9 1RG) on the second Sunday of every month, 9.30am-1.30pm. Seedy Sunday is the theme on 10 March and its believed to be Kents first seed swap.

Ian Chatfield Butchers

High Street, TN9 1EJ, 01732 354733. Ian was born in Tonbridge, his first Saturday job was at a butchers, where he worked full time after leaving school. Now the master butcher is back on the High Street , just three doors down from where he trained, with this new independent family butchers and delicatessen. Look out for free-range beef, pork and lamb, home-made meat pies, baguettes made to order, pasties and freshly baked bread.

Delikatesy on the Bridge

Railway Approach, TN9 1TR. Turn right out of the station and youll soon come to this colourful Polish delicatessen selling a wide range of meats, cheeses and groceries until 7pm.

Gorgeous George, Pavilion Walk, TN9 1TE, 01732 369871. Another new addition to the town, look here for unusual gifts, lifestyle items, plus selected spirits and fine wines. Wine-tasting nights will be added over the next months.

Grace Fashion Accessories, 9 Angel Walk, TN9 1TJ, 01732364236. Specialising in high-quality handbags, this independently owned accessory shop sits opposite the Post Office and is perfect for that last-minute item to finish your Friday night outfit.

Mr Books, 142 High Street, TN9 1BB, 01732 363000. If you love old books, new books, fact or fiction, one-offs or annuals, biographies, how-to or just fancy a page-turner, come to this great independent now in the heart of Tonbridge.

The Gift Box, 119a High Street, TN9 1OL, 01732 354131. The name gives it away. Its a great place to find the perfect present or card for any occasion.

Where to stay: if the Passion Play has inspired you to see more of the area and you fancy a weekend in or around Tonbridge, Kent Life recommends the following.

Rose and Crown Hotel, 125 High Street, TN9 1DD, 0845 373 0947. Built in the 16th century, this handsome Tudor building is close to the castle and its historic quarter, with rooms from 54 and its own Oak Room restaurant.

The Langley Hotel, 18-20 London Road, TN10 3DA, 01732 353311. On the edge of Tonbridge town centre lies this public school, a friendly, family run hotel with 39 rooms from 40.

Carpenters Arms, Three Elm Lane, TN11 0AD, 01732 850307. Coming in as a triple threat, the Carpenters Arms is a pub with rooms and a restaurant. Its the perfect rural getaway but still only a five-minute drive from the town centre, with rooms from 59.

What to see and do:

Tonbridge Castle, TN9 1BG, 01732 770 929. If youve just enjoyed watching the countys first Passion Play then youll want to learn more about its backdrop. Boasting one of the finest gatehouses in England, this 900-year-old castle has more than just looks. Inside is a tour that tells stories of kings and archbishops, tyrants and heroes who have all weathered the stonework into the history books. Just a 10-minute walk as you leave Tonbridge Station, down to the end of the High Street.

Tonbridge Racecourse Sportsground. Just beyond the castle is a large, flat sportsground where facilities include an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, childrens play area, tennis courts and football and rugby pitches

Tonbridge School, High Street, TN9 1JP. This jewel in Tonbridges crown is well worth seeing the famous independent day and boarding school for boys was founded in 1553 by Sir Andrew Judd. It boasts a fabulous sports complex with a viewing gallery overlooking the running track where local golden girl Dame Kelly Holmes trains her elite squad of athletes, and has its own theatre, the EM Forster Theatre, 01732 304106.

Tudor Trail, starts from Tonbridge Castle and ends at Hever Castle. Its a smashing bike ride taking you from the castle, along the River Medway and into the countryside through the quaint villages around Tonbridge and ending up alongside another famous castle. For an easy ride, allow two hours to complete.

Architecture. The town centre features many wonderful buildings and the splendid Big Bridge over the Medway that is right at its heart. Churches such as St Peter and St Paul, and St Stephens, with roots in Saxony and Victorian times respectively, are well worth a visit over the Easter weekend and Jane Austen addicts will love the links with the author and her family.

Haysden Country Park, 1.5 miles right as you leave Tonbridge Station, up Lower Haysden Road, TN11 9BE. Here 160 acres of beautiful countryside mingle with two lakes (Barden and Haysden), interesting wildlife and a smattering of walks and cycle routes. Sailing is encouraged and fishing is monitored by a warden. There are childrens activities and keep-fit stations on some of the walks to wear off any excess energy.

Getting there

Four miles from Tunbridge Wells, take junction 5 off the M25 for the A21, and from here the A26. Excellent rail links to London (40 mins) and the rest of Kent.

Satnav postcode: TN9 1BG


Susan Adams, owner Susan Adams Business Services

Tell us a bit about you

Having been born and bred in Ashford, my husband and moved to Tonbridge in 1971 following career moves. We were immediately impressed by the friendliness of the inhabitants, the High Street, castle and river, plus the proximity of the huge park to the town centre shops - how refreshing to be able to buy groceries one minute and feed squirrels and swans the next.

How did your business begin?

After our two sons were born, like many young mums with babies I looked for part-time work and started to offer a home typing service. When the boys started at Sussex Road Primary I took an office in the High Street, above Bob Woolmer Sports, trading as Susan Adams Business Services, and soon added photocopying, printing, telexing and faxing to word processing. Within two years I expanded into High Street shop premises, becoming the towns office stationery supplier; my husband came to help out for a fortnight, enthusiastically confirming to all customers that he was Susan Adams, and we still work together more than 30 years later.

What about local involvement?

In the 1980s the many town-centre independent retailers resulted in an enthusiastic local business community and I enjoyed helping to run the Chamber of Commerce, the Christmas festivals, the local business lunch club and, later, organising the annual garden show which at one stage attracted 20,000 visitors into the town and raised more than 50,000 for local charities. Last year I became a member of the Tonbridge Town Team which has many exciting plans for revitalising the town centre to the benefit of both residents and businesses alike and I am looking forward to seeing what our results will be. We are blessed in having a local council which is happy to back all local initiatives, albeit constrained by central government legislation.

What about your leisure time?

Inevitably, with a male-dominated household, our family joined the local sports clubs - several cricket matches involved one son batting, one son bowling, husband umpiring and me providing the teas. We follow Tonbridge Angels Football Club as often as we can, and are pleased to sponsor the local Oast Theatre. We owned and professionally raced 12 greyhounds and as they retired we ensured they went to good homes - we kept six of them and one always accompanies us to our shop.

What do you love about Tonbridge?

Having been embroiled in local life for so many years we now know many people in Tonbridge and thoroughly enjoy the ambience of a small town, it offers all we need and when we yearn for city, coast or shopping life we are close to London, Hastings and the M25. Our visitors find Tonbridge a delightful town with its historic buildings, castle, a fantastic farmers market, riverside walks, rural cycling paths, and wide range of cafs and restaurants.

Tonbridge in a sentence?

Tonbridge isnt grey - its any colour we want to make it!

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