Sep 9 2010 By Barry Dix
WHAT a remarkable contrast. Less than a month ago the interior of the Theatre Royal, Windsor, was a riot of rock ‘n’ roll music and an explosion of outlandish colour as Dreamboats and Petticoats thundered into town.
This week songs and tunes from an earlier, far less hedonistic era are echoing around the old venue as audiences are reminded of the joys, hardships and gentler pace of life in rural England just two generations before the advent of pop and pin-ups.
The revival of Lark Rise to Candleford, first staged at the National Theatre in 1978, enables us to travel back to an isolated hamlet in north Oxfordshire in the latter years of the 19th century.
And, like a journey along a cobbled street, it’s not always a comfortable ride.
Despite the pretty rural images portrayed in many paintings of the period, conditions inside those thatched cottages were anything but idyllic.
For the poor, staying alive was a raw and ragged struggle, food was often in short supply, the workhouse was a constant threat and death and disease called regularly at the door.
Lives were governed by the seasons, the weather and ancient, mysterious customs, while the most modest and innocent of pleasures were viewed as experiences to be savoured and long cherished.
Few stage productions have managed to encapsulate that age so vividly and satisfactorily as Keith Dewhurst’s adaptation of Lark Rise to Candleford, based on the first book in the trilogy by Flora Thompson,
Dewhurst’s version is far truer to the original than the rather-too-cosy Sunday evening BBC series, which has strayed a long way from Thompson’s tales, even introducing characters who never appeared in the books.
There was very nearly a full house at the Theatre Royal on Tuesday evening for the opening night on a long tour for the revival of the National production.
Many in the audience were, no doubt, devotees of the much-loved BBC show and were probably a tad disappointed initially at this stripped-down, gritty version, with its reliance on folk songs and tunes to bind together scenes of Lark Rise life from sunset to sundown on one harvest day.
True, the pace of the production is ponderous at times, almost as slow as the progress of a carthorse on a steep hill, but it’s intentional – forcing our overloaded 21st century minds to retune to the more sedate surroundings of the English countryside 120 years ago.
All but two members of the cast, including Laura, played confidently by Becci Gemmell, are required to take on several different roles and tackle folk singing, a task some obviously relish more than others.
Jonathan Ansell, hardly recognisable from X Factor’s G4 or his subsequent solo stardom, adapts well to the role of a rustic and adds a touch of quality to the singing, in which the cast’s two ‘folkies’, Roger Wilson and Blair Dunlop obviously excel.
The latter, just 18, is the son of Ashley Hutchings, founder of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, creator of many of the Lark Rise songs and musical supervisor both of the original National Theatre version and this new revival.
Sara Crowe is perfect in the role of Laura’s mother Emma, while there’s strong support from a cast which includes Eric Richard, who played Sgt Bob Cryer in The Bill for 20 years, Christopher Beeny, more familiar to Windsor audiences in his pantomime roles, and Vivien Keene, who is particularly outstanding as Queenie.
This stage version may lack the gloss of the TV Lark Rise, but it is more successful in portraying the everyday experiences of the poor, but proud and God-fearing rural communities in an era before widespread farm mechanisation and the sacrifices of the First World War changed those lives for ever.
Lark Rise to Candleford is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, until Saturday September 18. Contact the box office on 01753 853888.