The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Adapted by Deborah McAndrew from the novel by Anne Brontë
Octagon Theatre Bolton and York Theatre Royal
Octagon Theatre

Michael Peavoy and Phoebe Pryce Credit: Richard Davenport
Marc Small Credit: Richard Davenport
Natasha Davidson, Nicôle Lecky and Phoebe Pryce Credit: Richard Davenport

Deborah McAndrew's latest literary adaptation is of Ann Brontë's tale of the mysterious stranger who is thrown reluctantly into village life when she moves with her son into Wildfell Hall.

Farmer Gilbert Markham, who has been flirting with vicar's daughter Eliza against the wishes of both his mother and the Reverend Millward, initially describes her as "handsome" rather than pretty but he soon becomes captivated by this intelligent, well-read and artistically gifted young woman.

However there remains a mystery about her background, her widowhood and her relationship with her landlord, Gilbert's friend Mr Lawrence. But where facts are scarce, gossip soon fills the gap, especially in small communities, and Mrs Graham is portrayed as an immoral woman, not a widow at all but who has walked out on her poor husband and stolen his son from him.

The climax of act one is a confrontation between Gilbert and Mrs Graham which culminates in her handing him her journal of the last six years of her marriage. This leads into the opening of act two as a flashback into the journal, starting with Mrs Graham—actually Helen Huntingdon—and her new husband Arthur returning early from honeymooning in Europe to Arthur's country seat.

Charismatic, handsome Arthur soon turns out to be a drunk and a womaniser, abusive to his wife and demanding her absolute obedience. Three decades before Ibsen's Nora Helmer walked out on her husband Thorvald in A Doll's House, Helen fled from Arthur, although in this case she took her child, also called Arthur, with her.

The flashback device sort-of works but could be smoother, not helped by some doubling of actors who, in the main, look and sound almost the same as they did before the interval. There is also some dialogue early on that is rather too obviously expository and that looks fine on the pages of a nineteenth-century novel but becomes a bit of a mouthful for actors to speak.

However on the whole the adaptation works well and keeps the pace and the plot moving throughout. Towards the end, it becomes a bit broken up by lots of short scenes, made more obvious by the cello music which is effective earlier but starts to come in a bit too often.

Phoebe Pryce is faultless as Helen Graham/Huntingdon, realising the character perfectly in a very strong performance. Michael Peavoy is also very effective as the impulsive and passionate Gilbert Markham, and Marc Small's Arthur Huntingdon is every bit as repellant as he should be.

The cast is completed well by Colin Connor as Reverend Millward with a fondness for the home-brewed ale, Natasha Davidson as his daughter Eliza, Nicôle Lecky as Gilbert's sister Rose, Philip Starnier as Mr Lawrence and Susan Twist as the matriarch of the Markham family.

While not a groundbreaking piece of theatre, it's a perfectly enjoyable two and a half hours in the company of interesting characters, adapted and directed (director Elizabeth Newman) with a clear fondness for the original story which is certainly communicated to the audience.

Reviewer: David Chadderton