Chris Eldon Lee reviews Hotbuckle Theatre’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ which he saw at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn as part of their national tour.

 

They’ve jolly well gone and done it, yet again!

This season the highly successful and perfectly proven Hotbuckle formula has been applied to Thomas Hardy’s remorseful story – and it fits like a glove.

Adrian Peater’s company of four have built themselves an enviable reputation for taking period novels you really think you should have read and delivering them on a plate - with loyalty, love and affection. Every time, as my ticket is torn at the door, I wonder how on earth are they going to find humour in such a tragic tale. And every time I am delighted they do. Their productions are equally laced with laughter and tears. It’s a magic combination. Always.

Adrian adapts and directs, and is a classic comedy turn. This time, as Marian the milkmaid, it takes him just three minutes to don a frock and talk about his luxurious hair. Together, with the ever-engaging Joanna Purslow as his country cousin side-kick, they narrate and invent the play before our very eyes. Wooden stools became udders, waiting to be milked, or barrels, waiting to be churned.

They take it in turn to tell the story directly to the audience and dip in and out of the action in the parental roles. Down the pub, as the Durbeyfields, they drink imaginary glasses of beer that cleverly clink to the sound of two tiny Chinese cymbals, touched together by a passing actor. In the dining room, as the Clares, their prim and proper, synchronised table manners are a joy to behold as they blithely ignore their son’s love story. As maids in the milking parlour, a clap of hands and a distant moo is all they need to imply a small herd. This is the kind of constant ingenuity that marks out Hotbuckle as one of the most watchable small-scale touring companies in the country. In Joanna, they have a first-class character actor. In Adrian, Jo Grundy lives on.

The two regulars take care of the gentle, respectful humour, leaving the way clear for the young newcomers to act out the tragic heart of the story. The focus in firmly on the quite brilliant Beth Organ who, in time-honoured Hotbuckle tradition, plays the fateful Tess throughout … and the imposing Sam Elwin as the two men in her life; the upstanding Angel Clare and the creepy Alec D’Urberville.

Their rape scene together is passionately choreographed and hauntingly sound-tracked. Typical of Hotbuckle’s policy of showing their workings, you can see the eerie red flood light on stage and watch Adrian actually press the button for the sinister music. But the movement of the moment is so riveting, the mechanics are swept away by the devastatingly chilly tension.

Tess’s later courtship with Clare is played with great restraint; like two evening primroses gently unfurling. When the truth of her previous deflowering emerges, they are achingly earnest in their morality. Later, the hopelessness of their Stonehenge scene is almost too painful to watch. They seem to specialise in stillness; and it’s a tribute to the company as a whole that their audience is equally stilled.

The whole production is presented with simple delicacy and intricate attention to detail. Nothing is overstated. The transitions from gentle slapstick to forlorn yearnings are beautifully handled. And the snatches and rounds of Wessex folk music weave their way in and out of the action like a burbling brook.   

Once again, it’s Hotbuckle at their very best. Existing members of their blossoming fan club will find their expectations are completely fulfilled. New recruits please start here.