A Dulditch Angel
Steven Canny, from the stories of Mary Mann
Eastern Angles Theatre Company
Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich & touring
The 39 novels and numerous short stories of the Norfolk writer Mary Mann may be out of print, but some of the sharpness and wit she evidently brought to her observations of rural life at the turn of the last century are recreated in the latest production from Eastern Angles.
Mann, along with PG Wodehouse, also wrote romances for Mills and Boon, and as a farmer's wife with four children she found literature a solace as well as a way of supplementing the family income. According to writer Steven Canny, her accounts of life in Shropham - the Dulditch of the title - are dispassionately and accurately observed, but with a surprising lightness and humour that is brought to the fore in Canny's play.
The hallmark of the production is its self-conscious theatricality and lively inventiveness. At the outset, the cast of characters is introduced to the audience, seven of them played with pantomimic relish by Gareth Hinsley and another eleven by Claire Vousden. As all eleven are old women, Vousden draws on a considerable repertoire of postures and expressions to differentiate this succession of old crones.
It's the actors whose voices produce the various sound effects. They also throw assorted confetti to suggest changing weather, and a tenderly manipulated old shawl, with over-the-shoulder bawling accompaniment, makes an irksomely realistic baby. A series of props housed on a simple dresser-style set of shelves at the rear of the stage enables the actors adroitly to change character or set a scene. The result is seamless and pacy; clearly the outcome of a strong ensemble effort in which writer Canny and director Orla O'Loughlin have worked closely together.
The pivot of the plot is the family of the high-minded, pontificating Rector and his buttoned-up sister, Hannah (Rachael Spence). After his wife's death, the Rector employs an inhumanly hardworking and headstrong housemaid, Mary (Imogen Church), around whom much of the action revolves. There is also the ageing, widowed Angel (Patrick Knox), who proposes to every old woman in the village until finally accepted by the youthful, broody Mary.
When the Rector thoughtlessly insists that eleven shillings a week, the budget enjoyed by his parishioners, is plenty to feed and clothe a family, and decides to put it to the test, the play begins to delve below the caricatures and explore the grinding poverty that is beyond his sympathy and understanding. But nothing has prepared him for the grim reality of long days slogging in the turnip fields, or his family for the hunger that will drive the upright Hannah to steal.
The Rector and his household return to their former more comfortable lives, and in many ways the gap between them and their neighbours echoes that between ourselves and the core of this play. We are allowed to glimpse the rural poverty of a century ago, but in effect it is providing a backdrop for a theatrical experience that, for all its wonderful inventiveness, falls short of being moving, and the affirmative statements that conclude the play sound glib.
A Dulditch Angel is an evening of uniquely entertaining theatre, and it's always good to be able to come out smiling. But if there's no sting in the tale it's because, as a piece about late 19th century rural life, this play never really grasps the nettle.
Reviewer: Jill Sharp