Based on Flora Thompson’s first book, Lark Rise published in 1939, Joe Harmston attempts to recapture the essence of late 1800s country life in this most recent adaption, following the BBC television series. Based on Thompson’s own biographical journals, it follows Laura Timms (Becci Gemmell) and the various goings-on around the small hamlet of Lark Rise (Juniper Hill, Oxfordshire).
‘Attempts’ may be too harsh a word to use, as it holds connotations of failure. Simon Scullion’s set created a beautiful working space – a raised sweeping walkway that featured silhouetted scythes in the opening scene built up an atmosphere. This was, however, lost until the final image of the frozen soldiers which I’m afraid to say felt like the most emotive part of the whole play. I felt Joe Harmston directed the piece too simplistically – for a story with not much excitement, it needed more to hook the audience in. Admittedly, the majority of theatre-goers appeared to be more senior members, and so the sense of nostalgia without a confusing plot or too much action most likely resonated more with them than with myself and I would say most young people. Indeed, several members of the front row gave standing ovations, which suggests I missed the emotion such an ‘every day’ story gave.
Becci Gemmell’s Laura was beautifully played, combining innocence with an unusual wisdom shown in her out-front narration. She definitely held the piece together, and the dynamics between herself and Edmund (David Osmond) was real and I could really connect to their relationship. I felt they were let down by Sara Crowe’s performance as Emma – she never quite grasped the accent, often speaking in a breathy, occasionally Americanised way which detracted from the words. This, coupled with an overuse of colloquialisms and stereotypically ‘country’ language, made the text laborious and hard work to follow.
One character that did truly stand out for me was played by Sophie Scott, as she embodied Mrs. Blaby, Martha, and Polly – her transitions between Mrs. Blaby and Martha were superb, and I think her talent was somewhat suppressed by the uninteresting script. Jonathan Ansell also handled the distinction between Boamer and John Price confidently and developed two superbly individual characters.
The song at the beginning, played by cast members, was a wonderful introduction to the piece and began to stir up images of country life. However, the continual bursts of song that then punctuated the rest of the story broke the flow of text and made me feel that I was watching an odd Shakespeare at the Globe rather than a reminiscent period piece. The musicians were undoubtedly talented and I do not wish to detract from that, but the songs became unnecessary and over-worked to the extent where I found myself dreading the next verse. Ashley Hutchings definitely created some interesting pieces in terms of songs and musical effects; it is unfortunate that their overuse led to such a judgement.
As an overall production, it was fair in performance, style and context – however it missed the mark in terms of an interesting piece of theatre. Not to say that all productions must have action or excitement; it just seemed to be too slow-paced and without anything real for the audience to take away with them. It was simply a ‘day in the life’ of Lark Rise which, for younger theatre-goers, lacked interest or resonance.
Lark Rise To Candleford is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 13th November. Booking via the website.