Gryphon Theatre, Wellington, until 15 November
To produce a theatrical adaptation of a 1930s comic parody of a gothic romance set in rural England is a hell of a challenge, but it is one that Stagecraft and director Tanya Piejus rise to with aplomb.
Satire and slapstick don’t sit easily together as they are respectively cerebral and visceral, but this production teases out the best of both worlds, leaving the audience with a sense of satisfaction, rather than nausea, which is what might result if it all went horribly wrong.
Flora Poste (Charlotte Stevens) arrives at Cold Comfort Farm like some sort of cross between Mary Poppins and Pollyanna to sort out her assortment of dysfunctional relatives. She flies in (in an aeroplane – affected by a model plane on a wire swooping through the auditorium) to declare that she ‘cannot endure a mess’ and to sort them all out and tidy them all up – whether they want it or not.
Flora is based on one of Jane Austen’s supercilious heroines. Depending on your opinion, Austen creates distinctive characters who are either vivacious and perky or pretentious and smug, and Charlotte Stevens portrays her to a tee. Her upright bearing and prim expression are perfect, although her constant furniture straightening and arm waving get a bit distracting. I want to slap her. But then, I want to slap Austen’s Emma, so this is clearly the desired effect.
Aunt Ada Doom rules the roost with her extreme version of madness – this is an actor’s gift and Ginny Brewer accepts it with delight. The ingenious set design allows her to see ‘something naarrrsty in the woodshed’ from behind a screen, playing with her shadow and cackling like some hyperbolic anti-heroine – what a transformation when she emerges dazzling from her cocoon and sweeps away on a Harley!
Petra Donnison is magnificent as the extremely depressed, and equally obsessed, Judith, the reverse-Oedipal mother of Seth. Seth himself is admirably played by Greg Hornsby with surly charisma that has the women falling over themselves to dance with him when he scrubs up well in a tuxedo. Seth is a good character but not a nice person – he is constantly taunting Rennet and Judith. When he is plucked to become a film-star you wonder vaguely how he will cope in the shallow, vacuous world of Hollywood, but you don’t really care.
Indeed, the only truly sympathetic character in the play is Reuben (Alan Carabott). Despite, or perhaps because of, Carabott’s magnificence at playing comedic characters, he is the only one with whom I have any connection. I want him to take over the farm and his gentle but simple strength is an anchor of calm amid the shambolic sea.
The wild and windswept Elfine (Elyse Featherstone) writes poetry (‘I thought you might’) and wears smocks (‘There is no such thing as a good smock’). She whirls about the stage and twirls her hair around her fingers, fidgety and restless more like a petulant child than a romantic heroine. When she sweeps Eliza Doolittle-like down the staircase, there is no thought to what might become of the young protégé and how she will adapt to chic society.
Robert Hickey plays evangelical Amos with burning fervour, whipping up his flock, the Quivering Brethren, with fire, brimstone and a warming pan (‘In Hell there is no butter’ is one of the best delivered lines of the play), which makes his double-role as bumbling butler, Sneller, all the more remarkable.
There is a lot of doubling in the play, executed most effectively by Tomas Rimmer from rustic slapstick Urk to smooth talking (and dressing) Richard Hawk-Monitor. Felicity Cozens also morphs seamlessly from gorgeously gormless facial expressions as dumb bewildered Rennet, constantly throwing herself down the well, to demonic histrionics as the other mother, Mrs Hawk-Monitor.
Stephen Fearnley, apparently in his 150th production, dextrously plays both a farming yokel and an American film producer which is a pretty tricky combination. This brings us to another challenge of the production: the accent. The rural Sussex dialect, complete with faux vocabulary (mollocking; sukebind; clettering), is not an easy one to master but it is integral to the play. The accents wander all over the country with hints of Yorkshire and the Midlands in places but the actors refuse to be distracted by the geographical ramblings.
Tanya Piejus copes creatively with difficult staging issues from the cardboard cut-outs of extra characters needed when Aunt Ada does a head count, to the non-too-subtle lighting changes and the rising of the moon. Special mention must go to the foley operator, Robyn Sadlier who is both amusing and unobtrusive as she conducts proceedings from on-stage.
By the end, Flora has tidied up all the loose ends and provided solutions for everyone with the aid of her trusty literature – The Higher Common Sense, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and a copy of Vogue. Each character has a denouement with the puppet master and the tempo drops. This series of talking heads could have been dispatched more neatly, or even cut altogether.
The chorus of Quivering Brethren literally sweeps the stage clear and, as in Shakespearean comedy, everything ends happily ever after with a wedding. But are these ends tied up as neatly as Flora thinks, or is she going to retreat and let it all unravel? If played differently, with the cutting satire highlighted above the comic visuals, this could have taken on a whole new meaning.
A common analysis of Stella Gibbons’ original novel is that Flora is the personification of British imperialism, and this interpretation adds weight to that theory. She is bright and brittle and keen to confide in the audience, indicating that she is above these people and their squalid affectations, while imagining herself as the shining beacon in the centre of their world.
With nods to Shakespearean comedy, the Brontes, DH Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw, the play spins off in a literary jitter-bug. It is aided by terrific costumes and dialogue sprinkled with words like utterly, terrific, spiffing, top hole and wizard. It’s entirely ridiculous and yet it’s adorable. The more I think about it, the more I like it, in some inexplicable way.