site search by freefind advanced

 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Newbury Dramatic Society - Far From the Madding Crowd

21st to 24th November 2007.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

A little corner of Hardy's Wessex

Newbury Dramatic Society takes a 19th-century classic from page to stage

Newbury Dramatic Society: Far From the Madding Crowd, at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Wednesday, November 21 to Saturday, November 24

The specially-adapted Far from The Madding Crowd at The Watermill was my third experience of the annual productions by Newbury Dramatic Society. Anyone who knows Thomas Hardy's realistic portrayals of mid 19th century country life in the raw would be surprised, as I was, that such a dramatic and sweeping story could transfer to the stage.

Matthew White originally adapted the book, uniquely for The Watermill, some 10 years ago. Ann Davidson re-staged this using the same words but added characters and specially-arranged music. These arrangements, and moments, by Rob Talbot and Fenella Newton, and a mandolin piece by Paul Firman, seemed perfectly in place.

I was particularly impressed by the set, which created the impression of space with flexibility of use; the lighting, which evoked time, tension and mood; and the sound, which added rural authenticity and provided excellent links. The backstage and supporting crew were slick and professional and the props and dressing were as good as I have seen anywhere. Very well done to Ann, Simon, Ruth, Mair, Sue and Jane and all involved.

Fenella Newton, as Bathsheba, and Paul Firman, as Gabriel Oak, were totally believable and beautifully underplayed. Their chemistry was palpable in the close encounters and, perhaps, more so when estranged. Mike Brook, as the wealthy, would-be fiancé and, ultimately, stalker of Bathsheba, had a difficult role but carried it off superbly.

Ian Martin made the simple odd-job man as funny as he dared (or was allowed) and enjoyed himself immensely in the process - a natural. Zandra Forder gave a delicate and sympathetic performance as the pitiable, put-upon and eventually perishing Fanny Robin. Delightful.

Roger Burdett was seemingly typecast as shepherd Jan Coggan, which is quite a compliment to a scientist. Ruth Quigley as Mrs Hurst, Elizabeth West as Mary Anne and Sylvia Knight as Liddy Smallbury gave excellent and credible comic character performances "organising and putting the world to rights in the village". Sylvia (Liddy) especially shone as 'lead witch' and also as the risqué consort to shepherd Jan Coggan.

Rob Talbot as the other shepherd Leban, Lynda Fright as Suzanna and Alan Davidson as 'very old' William were excellent foils to the action. Last, but not least, John Flexman as the 'baddie' Sergeant Francis Troy was smooth, caddish and cynical but, I am glad to say, not overplayed. Another difficult role to achieve plausibly, and he succeeded admirably.

My one reservation was the pace. I know that this is a common criticism for a first night. I am sure that it was corrected later in the week.

Summing up, I loved the adaptation, performance and setting, a perfect choice of play for the unique Watermill theatre. The rustic singing was so appropriate. Accents, while not all authentically Dorsetshire, were good and well-maintained. Stagecraft was unobvious but effective. Scene changes and time shifts were managed smoothly I came away with a better appreciation of the trials and hardships of a 19th-century farmer's year, as well as a comprehension of the relationships between the individual and disparate members of a close community.

Thomas Hardy would surely have recognised and approved of this production. Congratulations to the company.