Chris Eldon Lee reviews Hotbuckle Productions “Far From The Madding Crowd” which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until November 15th 2016 and is touring extensively in the spring.

 

From the very first exceedingly extended, teasing, accordion note - with the other instrumentalists hovering to join in -  we learn two things about this new production of Hardy’s age-old tale. First, it’s going to be an intimate ensemble piece with everyone mucking in together. Second, and this may come as a surprise to those who trudged through the book for A level, there’s a remarkable amount of first class humour to be found within it.

Feeling pressed for time, previous adaptors have usually felt compelled to focus on the tragedies of Hardy’s main characters at the expense of side lining the  comedic bumpkins. But Adrian Preater has taken a much more rounded, holistic, approach. He has his minor country characters (including himself, as a philosophising shepherd) leaning on a four bar gate, wittily gossiping the story to us….whilst the posher folk strut their stuff before them. The result is a thoroughly loveable adaptation which is laugh-out-loud funny and yet still purveys the darkness of the classic tale with respectful authenticity.

Much of the humour comes from clever by-play, well-held expressions, and the repetition of the same silly phrase or sight gag over and over again; getting funnier every time. (Synchronised farting is always good for a laugh). There were absurd moments to tickle your fancy such as the shameless, speaking sheep dog who has no qualms about sending his flock over a precipice. And there are wittily handled set-pieces such as the saving of a bloated flock (okay, two actors under shawls) with a sharp instrument to yet more sound effects.

But the human core of the book - painful themes of unrequited love, complications of class, and unfulfilled honour – are most sensitively done.

We can share Bathsheba’s express embarrassment at being the only female farmer at the market.  Virginia Lee is correct, cool, standoff-ish and statuesque as the young woman having to prove herself in a man’s world…whilst cruelly toying with the emotions of those who would woo her.  Handsome Matthew Rothwell plays two of her suitors. He bestows upon the eminently suitable (but lower class) Gabriel Oak an almost Jesus like smile of confidence. His courtship of the lady landowner is as delicate a not-quite love scene as you could wish to see. But his body language is instantly ugly as the dastardly, squandering Sergeant Troy who is so obviously the wrong man for Bathsheba, she just has to marry him. A shepherd’s crook is one of the few props employed. It becomes his flashing rapier when he gives Bathsheba a circus-act demonstration of his skills, and is suddenly a musket when he’s shot.

Lauren Orrock is consummately versatile as the fateful Fanny Robin who Troy wrongs; or as Bathsheba’s diminutive, cheeky employee Henery Fray who is wide eyed and breathless after seeing the sights of Bath. She’s an actor who will catch many a Casting Associate’s eye.

Adrian Preater put down his adaptor’s pen and director’s mantle to fill the fourth actor’s shoes. His scenes as the thwarted, aging Boldsworth stilled the audience as, dressed in undertaker’s black, he physically struggles to subdue his welling anger. It’s a chilling moment of menace.

Overall, it’s an exceptionally slick, beautifully acted and necessarily inventive evening. Actors change on stage and have little to work with except their heart and soul and a swinging gate. The company is three-quarters changed since their last outing but the special spirit of ‘Hotbuckle’ is enhanced in their hands. The company’s reputation is rightly rising.