Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s classic novel has been adapted dozens of times for the stage, and Stepping Out Theatre Company has added another adaptation to this long list – this time in musical form. Created by Alex Loveless (also known for Bel-Ami and Remains of the Day), the show is a strong creation led by a strong cast – and both contribute to a wonderful evening of storytelling.
The age-old tragic story follows Tess Durbeyfield as she is pushed by her parents into seeking what could be noble family blood – her alcoholic father tipped off by the local parson that it could well be corrupted from D’Urberville, a noble family. On visiting a local family going by the name D’Urberville to claim kin, her cousin Alec soon becomes part of her life in a way she doesn’t expect. On the same day, she meets local farmer’s apprentice Angel Clare, a chance meeting that proffers later on.
The original story is such a fraught, dramatic one that I was worried that Hardy’s story might be diluted, but I needn’t have. The score is a mixture of styles, with many songs enhancing the dramatic narrative and relationships perfectly. Accompanied by a chorus of very talented actor-musicians, the songs range in styles from slight folk numbers, mixed with elements of tango, slightly rocky chords and the essential torch numbers.
Highlights of the evening included Alec (Martin Neely) and Tess’ (Jessica Daley) duet ‘Forbidden Fruit’ which sees the two negotiate their relationship, as well as ‘Will You Marry Me’ – a comedic plea from the young farm hands to Angel (Nick Hayes). Whilst all of the evening was beautifully sung, the strongest relationships vocally were those of Daley and Hayes – their acting too, performing the wonderful lyrics perfectly. Whilst the score is largely exciting (reminiscent of the musical Little Women), there are the odd ensemble numbers which seem out of place (namely ‘Belly of the Beast’) whereas other comedic numbers like ‘The Dairy Song’ provide some much needed light-heartedness.
The supporting cast, including many Royal Academy alumni, all pitched their performances at the right level, whilst the melodramatic Durbeyfield parents (Marc Geoffrey and Catherine Digges) injected much needed humour into the heartbreaking storyline.
A clever set design by David Shields, and the foreshadowing lighting design by Phil Spencer Hunter combine to pull the evening along nicely, as well as Chris Loveless’ direction of a small but incredibly talented company. This beautiful new musical deserves a home on a bigger stage: it has a perfect blend of a new score, great book, talented cast and winning direction.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is playing the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio until 27 September. For more information and tickets see the ATG Tickets website.