Fun and coherence go missing

Lark Rise to Candleford (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Thursday, 7th October 2010, 3:58 pm

A REVIEW of Waiting for Godot famously summed up the play with the words, “Nothing happens – twice.” In this dull revival of a lively National Theatre production of Lark Rise to Candleford the summary could read, “Nothing happens – constantly.”

This tedious new version of Keith Dewhurst’s adaptation of the charming Flora Thompson books was no doubt regarded as a good idea in the wake of the successful BBC TV series. But what garnered such critical acclaim as two separate plays in the late 70s, failed to ignite in director Joe Harmston’s tiresome one-play revival.

Gone was the fun of the promenade style, in which the audiences were able to feel a part of the action, intermingling with the cast and having a real sense of life in a village community as young Laura commented on the quiet, close-knit and peaceful rural culture with slices of life adding colour to the rustic scene.

Instead there was a giant wooden curved ramp as the focus of Simon Scullion’s set, which was neither use nor ornament. And by using just the first of the original plays in this new production, the action concentrated on the first day of harvest for Lark Rise, not touching the lives of many characters and stories so well known from the books and television series, and having little in the way of a coherent storyline.

It was an enormous disappointment, not least because one sensed the cast (having to play numerous roles which were often difficult to work out between farm workers, craftsmen and gentry, and including the dependable Jonathan Ansell, Christopher Beeny, Sara Crowe, Eric Richard, and Becci Gemmell) were trying to liven it all up but the result was lacklustre and we never really cared about any of the characters, mostly seen rather fleetingly.

The big saving grace was the music, created and supervised by folk music legend Ashley Hutchings (he of Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Albion Band fame) using traditional songs as the basis; but whereas it moved the action and the audiences along in the promenade version, the static nature of this version made it all seem stuck on as an afterthought. However, all credit to musical director Roger Wilson and the ensemble for doing the very best they could and drowning the incessant and irritating birdsong soundtrack.

The ending, no doubt moving and able to give a future perspective originally, was clumsy and, sadly, made the lives lost in the Great War 25 years after the setting of the drama seem irrelevant.

Many purists who loved Flora Thompson’s rural tales in print hated the TV version, but this much-anticipated stage production is likely to leave all Lark Rise fans fuming and/or bored senseless.

David Guest