Tom Jones

Adapted by Ross Ericson from the novel by Henry Fielding
Giant Olive Theatre Company
Lion & Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is the work for which we chiefly remember Henry Fielding but he turned to novels only after the imposition of tougher censorship when Robert Walpole's 1737 Theatre Licensing Act made it impossible for theatres to present the political satires that he had until then been writing for the stage.

One can't help wondering how he would have tackled putting this picaresque tale on the boards. One thing's for sure, he would certainly have had to trim it heavily. That's what Ross Ericson does in his version, but the key story line is still there. Lovers of the book may miss some of their favourite passages but he somehow packs in all the key elements - and does it without demanding an enormous cast.

It is a very colourful story that is both raunchy and romantic. On stage it is painted with perhaps a broader brush and the comedy is about personalities and situation, there is no attempt to give it a political edge, let alone a contemporary one, though marriages for property and position, fathers who expect daughters to accept the man they chose and young bloods who sow wild oats are still around; they were not only products of the eighteenth century.

Edward Kingham's production presents Tom Jones as a romp, one that is introduced by Fielding, played by the director himself, in a manner similar to the opening of the book, discussing his bill of fare as a menu for differing palates, and then continues to act as 'chorus to this history'. That neatly solves the problem of bridging the excisions from the story and greatly accelerates the pace.

Tom, appropriately played as an enthusiastic innocent by Simon Greeves, is a bastard, his parentage kept secret, brought up by kindly Squire Allworthy (Kingham again). He falls for delightful but dutiful Sophia (Sarah Kelly), daughter of neighbouring landowner, bluff hunting and drinking Mr Weston (writer Ericson) whom I'd call more than life size if he wasn't already such a big man! But Weston wants her to marry Allsworthy's nephew (Ben Bellamy) who is going to inherit his estate. Then Tom's caught sowing wild oats elsewhere and sent away. Now how are these lovers going to be reunited? After a riot of rollicking fun is the answer.

Ericson also doubles a hypocritical tutor and a bullish redcoat off to fight rebel Scots and Bellamy a snotty-nosed aristo and a rotter of a husband while Stephanie Hampton is his wronged wife as well as hostess of an inn and Tom's first piece of rumpy pumpy.

Kate Mounce does a remarkable multiple quick-change double as both Sophia's proper and pernickety aunt and as the girl's devoted maid , plus one of Tom's aristocratic admirers and another lady who turns out to be his close relation.

With so much going on, from the first glimpse of girls dressing while Tom and the Soldier play chess through to Fielding's final closure, the actors all have to work their butts off.

There is a delightful moment when a bevy of galloping riders conjure up a fox hunt with a bushy-tailed Fielding himself becoming the fox. Fielding satirizes country manners but the production adds another level of parody, aping the self-conscious artificiality of many past productions of plays of this period. It leads to quite a lot of coarse acting but there's no time for subtlety with all the doubles entendres. The first night audience lapped it up, though it clearly needed a few more runs to get cues and performances as smooth as they should be.

"Tom Jones" runs until 13th June 2011

Howard Loxton