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The Admirable Crichton

J M Barrie, edited by Fiona Kelcher
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2011)

The Admirable Crichton production photo

It's been a thrilling rep season at the New Vic as the Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round has celebrated its 25th anniversary year by going back to its roots. A company of 11 actors have got to grips with four different plays over the past four months - and the New Vic has probably saved the best until last.

David Auburn's mathematical detective story and psychological drama Proof has now completed its run, with J M Barrie's rarely performed The Admirable Crichton taking its place.

The play had an eventful beginning in 1902, its design being so complicated that the carpenters went on strike. When the production eventually got under way, the curtain didn't come down until after midnight!

The New Vic, though, has never shied away from putting on a play because of potential staging difficulties. With The Admirable Crichton designer Michael Holt has done an exceptional job.

The action begins in Lord Loam's mansion before moving to a desert island and back again. Holt ingeniously gets a table and a seating area to open up, forming a rock and a camp fire on the island. Even then the changes take time but a couple of songs competently fill the gaps.

The Admirable Crichton, thought not to have been performed in the UK since 1997, is set in the upstairs-downstairs world of Edwardian society. Lord Loam has radical views and insists that the servants take tea with the family once a month. But fiercely traditional butler Crichton disagrees.

His lordship, his three daughters, friends and servants sail off in his yacht on a tropical holiday but are shipwrecked. It seems highly improbable, but Barrie uses the family's adventure to make the point that relationships and the class system can be turned upside down when people have to cope with adversity.

As with the other three plays in the rep season, the acting is of a commendable standard. Paul Greenwood, impressive in both Proof and Sheridan's The Rivals, gives another commanding performance as Lord Loam, majestically aristocratic in his home yet subservient on the desert island.

Joanna Brookes, superb as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals and delightful as Daisy in Bill Naughton's Spring and Port Wine, gives solid performances as servant Mrs Perkins and battleaxe Lady Brocklehurst.

Victoria Gee, the only member of the company to appear in all four plays, catches the eye as the common yet loveable maid Tweeny.

The Admirable Crichton also allows other members of the company to showcase their talents. Andrew Pollard is delightfully acquiescent as Crichton before assuming a more regal stature on the desert island.

Oliver J Hembrough is sparky as Ernest Woolley and Louise Kempton haughty as Lady Mary before becoming malleable after being marooned.

New Vic artistic director Theresa Heskins directs with her usual style and invention. She also chose the four plays - the first rep season she's programmed - and must take great satisfaction from the results.

The Admirable Crichton is a glorious end to a memorable season. The company will be sorely missed.

Running in rep until 30th July

Reviewer: Steve Orme