By Nikki Packham
For anyone who has seen either of the films based on Hardy’s novel, the story is a familiar one; feisty Bathsheba, quite the feminist of her day, struggling to farm alone in 1870s rural Dorset. Into her life come three men who all profess to love her and who all want to marry her. Firstly Gabriel Oak who, having faced the loss of his flock after Bathsheba has rejected his proposal of marriage because she doesn’t love him, swallows his pride and becomes her shepherd. Then there is Boldwood, her gentleman farmer neighbour, older, lonely, and probably a depressive, who falls for her independent spirit, but who again, is rejected. Lastly the dashing Sergeant Troy, with whom she falls in love and who, by marrying her, rejects the one real love of his life.
This production of the play showed us clever projection on a gauze, and an equally clever set designed by Dave Armour to facilitate the different scenes, 42 in all I believe. The fact that farmers in the 19th century had to contend with many disasters was hinted at in the jagged outlines rising above the small spaces filled with bales, leaning ladders, rostra climbing to Bathsheba’s parlour with its few pieces of furniture, and the clever use of a cart, plus a seat which could be turned into a table. The props provided by the cast and crew were smoothly placed for the appropriate scenes, the set construction team did a wonderful job helping to create Dave’s vision and Debbie Griffith’s costumes were absolutely right in style, complementing the lighting and the set pieces. The effects were very well handled, though I wish we had been able to see a more realistic tying down of the hayricks before the storm.
The lighting design by Jess Jenner was atmospheric and sweeping, complemented by the sound design by Keith Jeremiah. The original music by Anne Greenidge made me feel that the workers on the farm, both male and female, knew how to enjoy themselves and the dancing brought a smile to my face. Stage Manager Pat Jones and her ASM, Sarah Cummins ensured that the story unfolded smoothly and we were swept seamlessly from scene to scene with the help of the lighting and sound operators, Daisy Edmonds and Marianne Stafford.
From the lovely opening, Matt Sharp gave us a Gabriel Oak sincere in his endeavours, constant in his love for Bethsheba and quick to act when fire started and a storm threatened the hay ricks. His was a performance of maturity and energy, as was that of Simon Holland as the older Boldwood. His persistence alone should have won the lady over, but Simon never over-emphasised his need for Bathsheba and the scene in which he shot Sergeant Troy was beautifully realised. This was a sensitive performance. Sensitive is not a word that one would use to describe Sergeant Troy and Phil Cairns looked dashing and played him as the arrogant womaniser he undoubtedly was, as shown in his first scene with his true love, Fanny Robins. When he met her again, having realised how he’d wronged her, Phil became softer, kinder and ultimately distraught when he realised his actions had killed her and his child. However, the arrogance returned with a vengeance when he returned from the dead, to claim back his wife.
As Bathsheba, Jessica Vautier looked every inch the head of the household and there were some lovely moments with all the men in her life, particularly her scenes with Troy, though I sometimes wished for a bolder, more passionate woman to emerge. Megan McGery’s performance as Fanny was delightful and heartbreaking at the end. Here was someone you felt really loved and so dearly lost her man.
The female servants worked well together and I particularly liked Heather Wain, whose body language and expressions gave us many a comic moment. She was ably partnered by Ann Morgan, Catherine Ross, Rebecca Riddleston and chanteuse Emma Kerby-Evans. The men obviously enjoyed their roles and apart from some moments of over-exuberance, inaudibility, and slowness of speech, Mark Dempsey, Peter Yolland, Steve Pitt and Robin Ferguson made a very pleasing foursome. Steve Williams, as Sergeant Troy’s drinking buddy, didn’t put a foot wrong.
Large ensemble pieces are difficult to stage and Kay O’Dea directed with great flair and skill, ensuring that every scene of birth, death and redemption was brought to life for us, the audience, to share.