It’s 250 years since John Newton wrote ‘Amazing grace’. Diane Holt reviews the play that tells the story of his life, as well as elevating the voices of black abolitionists and slaves that are often overlooked

Forever Mine2

Source: Forever Mine

2023 marks the 250th anniversary of one of the world’s best loved hymns: John Newton’s ‘Amazing grace’.

However, it was the letters of John Newton and his beloved wife Mary, (or Polly, as she was affectionally known) that first inspired mother and daughter team Ruth and Susie Garvey-Williams to write Forever Mine. The stage play aims to share a story that spans the centuries and has touched countless lives on multiple continents.

This is not just a tender love story, although the scenes between Newton and his soon-to-be wife – which the audience is invited to view via their letters to one another - are touching. It is also an exploration of Newton’s conversion and his love for God. Through material gleaned from diaries, letters and historical speeches, the audience are taken on a journey from his days as a ship’s captain and slave trader to his calling to be a clergyman and eventual abolitionist, including his friendship with William Wilberforce.

Garvey-Williams was keen to elevate the voices of lesser known black abolitionists and slaves

Forever Mine’s debut tour of Ireland earlier this year was so successful that it is now playing across the UK - including St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry/Londonderry, where John Newton first took communion, and St Peter and Paul’s Church, Olney where Newton served as a curate and wrote Amazing Grace for a New Year’s Day service in January 1773.

Produced with skill

Churches are not always the friendliest spaces for theatrical productions. However, the play’s skillful design and direction deal with the challenges of the different spaces in which they find themselves. The set design was simple but effective. With three free-standing moveable flats and some atmospheric lighting, we were transported from the ship’s deck, where we witnessed Newton’s conversion, through the different homes of Newton and Polly to the Houses of Parliament, where we listened to speeches championing the abolition of the slave trade.

Forever Mine is produced by Living Breath Productions, in partnership with the Amazing Grace Festival, Buncrana, Ireland. For this tour, they have also partnered with International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organisation working with governments, police, partners, survivors and supporters to stop slavery and violence. Co-writer Ruth Garvey-Williams was keen to elevate the voices not only of Newton and Wilberforce but of lesser known black abolitionists and slaves, such as James Gronniosaw and Olaudah Equiano.

Performed with grace

There were strong performances from all four of the young cast. Ellis J Wells played John Newton from his youthful rebellious days to his older, wiser years with maturity and sensitivity. Susie Garvey-Williams was lively as the young Mary Newton but showed depth and evoked sympathy as we learned of the pain of her childlessness and the cancer diagnosis which eventually led to her moving death.

Christian Gerring was versatile and transitioned seamlessly from the ship’s captain, through Mary’s brother to the complicated and emotional poet, William Cowper. But his performance as William Wilberforce showed both the vulnerability and strength of the man who spoke with forceful eloquence in Parliament but wrestled with doubt and discouragement in the long years of his campaign to abolish slavery.

The audience are taken on a journey from Newton’s days as a slave trader to his calling to be a clergyman

However, for me, it was Gideon Asuming who shone. Dressed in a red coat and tunic as Olaudah Equiano, his testimony to parliament of how slaves were treated, and the dehumanising effect of being torn from his family and home was powerful, passionate and moving. Gideon also played James Gronniosaw, an enslaved man who later became the first African to be publsihed in Britain and who visited the Newtons in Olney in 1772. He also provided a beautiful and moving acapella rendition of ‘Amazing grace’ throughout the performance.

This was the debut theatre score for Hilary Kemp who, the programme tells us, has a keen interest in ethnomusicology. I loved the mix of music styles and instruments, which was evocative, sensitive and helped the flow of the play. I have a feeling we will be hearing much more from this talented musician and writer.

I learned so much in this production, not just about the life and ministry of Newton and his wife, but how he influenced and supported others in the abolitionist movement. It’s certainly fitting that your presence at this excellent production will also be supporting IJM as it continues the fight to end modern slavery, including in the UK, today.

Book tickets to see Forever Mine at a variety of UK locations until 2nd November