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Watermill Theatre - Far From the Madding Crowd

16th April to 23rd May 2015

Review from Newbury Theatre.

A story with comedy and a happy ending. Doesn’t sound much like Hardy, does it? But with Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy has provided the happy ending and director and adapter Jessica Swale has added the humour. The result is a fast-moving, action packed adventure – and pay attention at the start; lots of plot gets packed into the first ten minutes.

Bathsheba has inherited a farm from her uncle, and meets neighbouring farmer Gabriel Oak. Instant chemistry, but when Gabriel loses his flock of sheep over a cliff, his circumstances are reduced and he ends up working as a shepherd for Bathsheba. Enter Farmer Boldwood, solid and worthy, and of Bathsheba’s class. Naturally he falls for her. The next unsuitable suitor is dashing Sergeant Troy and, would you believe it, Bathsheba marries him. Things go steadily downhill, but she gets the right bloke in the end.

Gina Beck, as Bathsheba, is petulant and immature – she has to be, to make such a mess of her relationships, but it’s hard to see how she would have had the authority to run the farm successfully, even with Gabriel’s help.

Simon Bubb is a wonderful Gabriel, with great presence and power. Let’s hope Bathsheba gets him to let his hair down a bit. Matthew Douglas gives a lovely performance as Boldwood, never getting it quite right with Bathsheba or his farm. Sam Swainsbury wasn’t quite suave enough for Troy, but he has a nifty display of swordplay.

There is a strong supporting cast – I particularly liked Alice Blundell as the rather dippy Liddy – but I was a little uneasy with the mocking of Joseph’s stammer, something hardly referred to in the book.

Not forgetting the very fetching sheep (probably the first time a sheep has given birth on the Watermill stage), although the grown up ones were surprisingly frisky!

And the set – a fantastic design by Philip Engleheart, with bits that break up and come together to make the different scenes; most impressive. There were other nice touches too, like the mowing of the hay and the reaping of the corn.

Last, and certainly not least, the music, original and traditional by Catherine Jayes. Continuing the Watermill’s actor/musician tradition, there was lots of music in the play itself and covering scene changes. A bucolic musicfest.

All these things combine to give a most satisfying production. Don’t bother to see the film, out soon; go to the Watermill.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Watermill crowd-pleaser

Wessex comes to life in Jessica Swale's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic

Far From the Madding Crowd, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until May 23

Anyone who has Thomas Hardy's classic stories down as rather gloomy reads will be surprised and delighted by Jessica Swale's adaptation and direction of Far From the Madding Crowd.

The massive old beams of the Watermill merge seamlessly into an ingenious set which, with manipulation by the actors, becomes a variety of backgrounds, even a carriage, for Hardy's tale of Bathsheba Everdene (Gina Beck), the girl whose chequered love life is the basis of the story.

If the set transports the audience back to her farm in Wessex, Hardy's fictional county, the nine excellent actors, several of whom play dual roles, bring Bathsheba's farm to life, whether it is the jolly rustics roaring out songs about nipperkins, shepherd Gabriel Oak (Simon Bubb) delivering a lamb from a very realistic ewe, or the stammering Joseph (Ed Thorpe) trying to propose to Mary Ann (Emma Jerrold).

Having rejected Gabriel, Bathsheba flirts with Boldwood (Matthew Douglas) and then falls for Sergeant Troy (Sam Swainsbury), a rogue who has abandoned Fanny (Lisa Kerr), the mother of his child.

Apart from tragic Fanny the first half of the play has much that is merry and the actor/musicians accompany the action with music arranged and written by Catherine Jayes. It is mainly violins, expressively played by servant Liddy (Alice Blundell) and farmworker Jan (Ian Harris), that lead the audience into the action; wistful, dramatic or joyous.

The hymn that accompanies Fanny's funeral in the second half is, by contrast, sombre and moving, and it is in this half, too, that the sad Bathsheba describes her face as 'having no beauty left in it'.

Hardy's story was always a glorious look at human life and in this production each actor makes their character so entirely believable that the audience live with them through their joys and sorrows. This is particularly true of Gina Beck, playing Bathsheba as a lively capricious, naive young woman, and Simon Bubb, in a brilliant performance as the steadfast sensible Gabriel Oak, who puts up with such a lot of woe before the final happy ending.

I left this Wessex farm regretfully, determined to re-read Hardy's story, after a superb evening full of contrasting elements; festivities, tragedy, mistakes and love, so cleverly brought to life by this excellent cast.


Review from The Observer.

Less haste, more feeling

An atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s tortured romance stumbles in its race to the finish

three stars
“Silence has sometimes a remarkable power of showing itself as the disembodied soul of feeling wandering without its carcase, and it is then more impressive than speech.” Sergeant Troy’s wooing of Bathsheba with his swordplay (made famous in John Schlesinger’s 1967 film) shows the truth of Thomas Hardy’s words. Jessica Swale’s new adaptation of Hardy’s 1874 novel also offers a gentler instance. Bathsheba asks her silent admirer, the shepherd Gabriel Oak, to renounce his place beside her at a rustic feast in favour of neighbouring farmer and would-be suitor, Boldwood. No words are spoken, but disappointment presses like a weight on Oak’s shoulders; joy lightens Boldwood’s step and brightens his eyes. The audience – feeling for Oak and knowing what misinterpretation Boldwood will place on the invitation – gasps aloud.

Such moments, though, are rare in Swale’s production (which she also directs). The action races frenetically, as if to cram in everything (although, like Thomas Vinterberg’s new film, omitting Troy’s fairground performance). Hardy’s tale of thwarted loves needs more breathing space (as in scenes underscored by Catherine Jayes’s music, performed by the cast). However, the pace may relax over the course of the run, and the play compensates for speed by strongly conveying the novel’s pastoral atmosphere, its gallery of contoured characters and its earthy humour. Philip Engleheart’s design of movable wooden frames suggests rusticity without tweeness; James Whiteside’s lighting makes seasons pass. In a multi-skilled, well-matched ensemble, Emma Jerrold’s maidservant deserve special mention.


There are reviews from The Stage ("a deftly choreographed piece... the Watermill’s adaptation accentuates the skill of the company in bringing literature to the stage" - 4 stars), WhatsOnStage ("skilfully knits the epic and intimate with some delightful music making and singing from the talented cast" - 4 stars), Gazette and Herald ("the excellence of the cast makes for a good evening, with lovely music and a clever set... a surprisingly light evening of music and laughter").