Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Hotbuckle Productions at Louth Riverhead Theatre 13 February 2020
Toruing company, Hotbuckle manage to bring a light musicality to the ultimately tragic story of Tess Durbeyfield in their adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s somewhat pessimistic tale of sexual morality in Wessex. Adrian Preater’s re-telling of the story manages to employ live music and multi-role playing as effective dramaturgical tools as the great novel is presented by a cast of four.
Organ plays the determined and eminently sensible Tess, wronged by two men each of whom cause Tess’s life to spin into a downward spiral, through no fault of her own. He characterization and physicality are utterly convincing, and she makes a fine leading lady that the audience will root for. Possessed with notable musical ability and a lovely singing voice, her performance is the lynchpin as the only actor to play a single character throughout.
In high contrast, her suitors Angel and Alex are portrayed by Sam Elwin. Through subtle changes of costume and playing with verbal tone and physicality, he presents two distinctly different characters, causing the audience to have very different opinions of each. Ultimately however, both let Tess down and add to her pained existence. To carry off two leading male roles is difficult and to present distinctive characterization for each, is no mean feat.
Joanna Purslow brings humanity and warmth to each of the characters she portrays within the play and again achieves astonishing effects through simple changes of costume, posture or facial expression. Nothing showy in her portrayal but all deeply effective and painting rich pictures for the audience.
Finally, Adrian Preater playing a whole raft of characters of differing genders, status within society and states of inebriation, manages to steal scenes, shamelessly, through glances and visual comedy and as the writer, is probably entitled to give himself some lovely comic touches and flourishes throughout the play.
The virtuosity of the players is unquestionable; the storytelling is enhanced with Brechtian touches as costumes are changed before the audience’s very eyes and simple props double up as milking stools through to butter churners in a an incredibly effective physical display. The central set piece on stage appears at first glance to be a rustic stile, which through its imaginative employment takes on all sorts of characteristics and offers the cast the chance to play with levels effectively and avoids blocking sight lines among the performers.
The haunting, folk melodies played and sung by the cast provide a fine motif throughout the performance and set the scene efficiently from the cast’s entrance at the beginning of the first act. An agrarian, theatrical revolution is portrayed musically by performers handling their instruments deftly and it never feels forced or intrusive, though it is integral the company style.
The show itself is perhaps overlong at around two and a half hours and despite its charm could still benefit from some judicious editing as some scenes appear superfluous and add little to the pacing of the play. That is perhaps the greatest criticism of this production, though reducing the sweeping narrative of Hardy’s novel and employing minimal cast is a big ask.
There were one or two moments when the timing or other more technical details seemed to run away with the performers, as they struggled to halt the loop tracks created live on stage before moving to their next piece and a mild moment of panic seemed to cause a slight break in characterisation.
Overall, there was a huge amount to commend Hotbuckle’s production and potential audiences should be encouraged to take a chance on this lovely, bijou performance.
Andy Evans for Review Culture 13 February 2020