Candleford

Keith Dewhurst (from the novels by Flora Thompson)
Shapeshifter and Berwick House Productions
The Finborough
(2005)

If Flora Thompson were living and writing now, she would probably have centred her novels about rural Oxford in the local pub - the setting, as most soaps would have it, for local gossip, intrigue, and tragedy. But Thompson wrote about her working life as it was in the 1890s and chose the perfect alternative: the relatively new-fangled post office. Where else could people legitimately learn so much about their neighbours' darkest secrets, triumphs, joys and disappointments?

Candleford is the second of the two plays performed at the Finborough based on Thompson's books. As both plays are over two hours long, they are performed in rep (the first is called Lark Rise and is not reviewed here). It is the first time they have been professionally produced since the National Theatre's 1978/9 version.

The 14 year old heroine Laura (ably played by Sophie Trott who provided a focal point for the narrative) has moved 8 miles from Lark Rise to the village of Candleford to work at a post office presided over by Miss Dorcas Lane (Rosalind Cressy), a role she combines with running the blacksmith's.

The production takes the form of a promenade and, thankfully, one of the actors (the wonderfully expressive Susie Emmett) explains what the rules are from the outset (the audience can walk or sit anywhere, provided they don't mind being moved out of the way if the cast need the space). Two hours is a long time without sitting down, yet one doesn't want to sit on vital piece of set, or worse still, an actor. The set (designed by Alex Marker) constantly changes too so you never get too comfortable in the one spot, and you become almost absorbed into the production, rather like the village gossip. That said, at times it felt over-busy, with some hapless members of the audience having to move several times to get out of the way!

Thompson's novels had no real plot which is why the idea of a promenade works so well here. One moment we're learning about the plight of Mrs Macey (Anna Tolputt), the mysterious absence of whose husband is a source of gossip for all the villagers. The next we're sympathising with the local postman who is in danger of losing his job because his religious convictions refuse to allow him to do the Sunday delivery. Or we're over at the local manor house with the young servants who aren't posh enough to have their post delivered and have to walk miles to collect it instead.

Thompson's work provides us with a snapshot of village life in the late Victorian era, but more importantly, it shows us a sense of community that has long since been forgotten. It was a time that social hardships were deemed normal and class inequalities were borne with patience. But we could see in her writing that times were about to change.

The design and direction were largely successful, although there were some upper parts of the set that were lost to the audience as the actors' faces were unlit. Directors John Terry and Mike Bartlett ensured a very imaginative production. When a local hunt is recreated, for example, the actors play both the horses and their riders, and the hoofs are made by sticking old pots on the bottom of the shoes. The costumes (designed by Penn O'Gara) were particularly good - pleasant to look at, while clearly showing the social status of individual.

An unusually involving production, right up to the end when some of the audience were invited to take part in the village dance! Be warned.

"Candleford" plays in repertory with "Lark Rise" until 29th October.

Bronagh Taggart