Gone to Earth

Helen Edmundson
Shared Experience
Bristol Old Vic and touring

Natalia Tena as Hazel Woodus in Gone to Earth

Shared Experience have built up an enviable reputation since they took to the road some sixteen years ago, notching up a clutch of awards and accolades for their adaptations of theatrical classics (A Doll's House, The Tempest) and stage adaptations of literary classics (The Mill on the Floss, Ann Karenina).

I have to admit I am not familiar with the work of Mary Webb from whose novel Gone to Earth, the company's latest touring production is taken, so I can't comment on the success - or otherwise - of the adaptation. As a piece of theatre, however, it's something of an uneven affair, taking some time to establish itself. Essentially, we're in Thomas Hardy-Charlotte Bronte territory. Unfortunately for most of the first half at least, the play teeters on the verge of TV Catherine Cookson, with a snatch of Ralph and Ted from The Fast Show thrown in. There are snatches of dialogue that hint at first-class writing but the ground is so well-trodden and by better writers that I can't quite see what prompted the company to resurrect this particular slice of Shropshire (?) life.

It also proves that in our post-modernist, satirical, oh so knowing age ("It's a wonder we don't slide, laughing, into the sea", as Peter Cook once observed), it's very difficult now to pull off this depiction of a rural England which is as dead as the Elizabethan madrigal. Stick someone in a flat cap; mangle the vowels and shades of Python's Four Yorkshiremen loom. ("Hole in the road? Luxury. We dreamt of living in hole in road. Four of us lived at bottom of lake!")

The heroine, Hazel Woodus, a wildly alluring 17-year-old child of nature is wooed and wed - but not bedded - by decent, demure cleric. Vying for her affections, however, is world-weary Jack Reddin, a no good laird with a child already on the way, care of his servant-cum-mistress. He deceives Hazel into a rendezvous and then has his wicked way with her. Fallen woman returns to husband, prompting outrage among his parishioners and ultimately tragedy.

The set is a giant three-sided cage which makes the point, none too subtly, that the characters are trapped, albeit in different ways. As the play opens, Hazel's father is slaughtering a pig, despite the best efforts of his daughter who cannot bear to see any creature suffer. Members of the cast behind the bars stamp their feet rhythmically, a device which recurs throughout the play.

Natalia Tena in her professional debut, gives an assured performance as Hazel with a performance which includes frequent singing - something she does confidently. Jay Villiers as Jack, whom I have previously found to be rather wooden, if amiable, turns in a decent performance. Simon Wilson as the cleric Edward Marston, grows in stature during the play, which picks up much-needed momentum in the second half. The production is never less than entertaining but I'm not sure that it lives up to the high standards set with previous outings, which last year saw them win an award for best production.

"Gone to Earth" is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 11th May to 5th June, and then at the Oxford Playhouse from 8th to 12th June.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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