The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot, adapted by Helen Edmundson
George Eliot was the ideal author to pen the story of Maggie Tulliver, the outspoken miller's daughter who feels out of place in Victorian society and is denied the education she craves for. That's because the novelist's life was also colourful and some commentators see The Mill on the Floss partly as a self-portrait.
By the time the book was published in 1860 Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, had failed in her attempts to win the affections of two men and had then caused tongues to wag by taking up with a married man who was separated from his wife.
The Mill on the Floss charts Maggie's quest for love and how it affects her relationships with her family. Along the way they experience financial ruin, losing their mill to Mr Tulliver's worst enemy, Wakem. In a not unexpected twist, Maggie builds an intense friendship with Wakem's son Phillip, only to be wooed by Stephen Guest, the fiance of her cousin Lucy.
Helen Edmundson's adaptation was staged in the West End two years ago by the acclaimed Shared Experience company. That lasted two hours 45 minutes but Richard Baron's version in Nottingham, a co-production with Exeter's Northcott Theatre, goes on for an extra 30 minutes - and that is the main drawback: its length means there are too many peaks and troughs to make it riveting throughout.
The play starts impressively enough. Nine-year-old Maggie is reading a book about the practice of "ducking the witch" and a trapdoor on Trevor Coe's impressive set opens to reveal a suspected witch being figuratively immersed to see whether she will drown.
Three actresses play Maggie at various stages of her development. Veronica Leer is the first Maggie and is the most successful, her feisty impishness, vivacity and cheekiness noticeably lifting the production. Her berating of her mother for thinking only about possessions when a bailiff strips their home is almost shocking.
Unfortunately the pace dips with the introduction of Maggie number two. This is not the fault of Helen Logan, more the circumstances as Maggie disciplines herself to suppress her feelings for Phillip and always puts others before herself.
Suzy Bloom appears after the interval as the third Maggie and has a slightly more exciting role as the mature woman who eventually lets her heart rule her head.
The interaction between the three Maggies is a delight as they pull in different directions, reflecting the complexities of her mixed-up character.
All eight actors give sterling performances, sharing the seventeen roles between them. Jonathan Broadbent is exceptional as the limping Phillip, Hywel Morgan changes dramatically from the doting elder brother into a cruel, domineering force; and Gail Watson lifts the second half as the spirited Lucy.
Baron, Nottingham Playhouse's associate director whose recent work includes Tom Stoppard's Travesties, presents an imaginative, theatrical piece with slow-motion sequences and other visual gems.
But the length and some of the flowery language take the shine off what would otherwise have been a jewel of a production.
"The Mill on the Floss" runs until September 20th
Reviewer: Steve Orme