Village churchgoers lose savings over failed musical

The International Church
Image caption The International Church encouraged members to give to the musical

Members of a village church lost hundreds of thousands of pounds after the collapse of a religious musical that was supposed to tour arena venues.

Members of The International Church's congregation said they were told giving to Heaven on Earth was "giving to God".

The production, based on the story of Adam and Eve, was weeks from its first performance when it went bust with debts of £2.6m.

One of the directors said they were sorry for everyone who had lost money.

Some of the congregation had reportedly remortgaged homes to help fund it.

It is estimated 30 people in the Nottinghamshire village of Mansfield Woodhouse are owed £500,000 between them.

Former churchgoer Yessika Oakley, 34, said her family donated thousands towards the church's project.

She said: "They weren't asking for £5, they were asking for large amounts of money from people that didn't have much.

Image caption Yessika Oakley says her family paid thousands

"But because they did it in the name of God, they were put under the pressure that if you didn't give, you're not being faithful and God isn't going to be very happy with you."

Eden International Productions was set up by some of the leaders at the church to put on the show.

The musical kept growing in scale and ended up booked to go on a six-month tour through 2018 at venues across the country, including Wembley Arena and the Motorpoint arenas in Nottingham and Cardiff.

Stars such as tenor Russell Watson and West End actor Kerry Ellis were brought onboard and the cast list was 30 strong.

Image caption Russell Watson was hired to pre-record some of the vocals

The show was promoted on national TV and Nottingham-based firm Planet Costume Services said it was told there was a budget of £300,000 just for outfits - though it ended up being owed £26,000.

But all the expenditure relied on cash given by the north Nottinghamshire congregation and the independent church's leadership.

Audrey Beardal, 80, who claimed she was asked to take out £3,000 of savings and was driven to a bank, said: "It was a massive, massive thing and now lots of people have had to sell their houses and move, it's very sad."

Another former church member, Lindsey, told BBC Radio Nottingham: "They thought it would be a God-given tool to win nations, to change the world.

"It's a lot when you're sat in your little church in Mansfield Woodhouse, you think it's a nice idea, something a little bit different but when you hear they want it to go worldwide you think, 'that's a bit extreme'."

Image caption The musical was funded with money from the congregation

Despite claims God would provide the rest of the huge costs, the show ran out of money in late 2017, just three weeks before curtain call.

Paul Fleming, from the actor's union Equity, said it was unusual for a production to fall apart so suddenly and suggested this indicated a lack of experienced leadership.

"Normally they limp on, normally they have contacts, normally they have a back-up plan," he said. "And there clearly wasn't anything here.

"The impact that has for our members is enormous. So they have to go right back to the drawing board... right back to their agents to desperately try and find some work.

"There wasn't any professional general management behind it as far as we can see or know.

Image caption Paul Fleming from Equity said actors had suffered

"One of the problems was the scale of it. Because it was built for an arena size, there was no way to manoeuvre it down into a theatre size.

"It was an incredibly peculiar, speculative bet for people who have never produced a show before."

Months after the production failed, the church itself, which was a separate organisation but run by many of the same people, also closed, and both are currently being liquidated.

The Charity Commission said it was aware of concerns and had asked the church's liquidator, Richard Tonks, to keep it informed.

Separate liquidators, Chris Newell and Frank Wessely, are looking at the affairs of the musical and said it was investigating the conduct of the directors.

Image copyright Other
Image caption The show was supposed to be an "epic"

When approached, one of the musical's directors said they were sorry for everyone who had lost money - including themselves.

But they insisted people had only been asked to donate on a "free will basis" and it "was always stressed there was no pressure on anybody".

No other former church leaders or directors of the musical wanted to comment when contacted by the BBC.

Because of the liquidation of both of the church and production company, the villagers are unlikely to see the combined half a million pounds they donated again.

"What's wrong with all of it is that it was somebody's dream," Ms Oakley said. "And it's OK to have a dream, but don't use other people's money for it. They should have never used people's money."

You can see this story in full on BBC Inside Out East Midlands at 19:30 GMT on Monday on BBC One, or via iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

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