Any new production of a play that has just recently been so successfully adapted for television is inevitably going to be subject to unfair comparison – No stage presentation could possibly match the creative and financial resources available to the likes of the BBC. When the subject play is Cranford, and the TV adaptation features such theatrical luminaries as Dame Judi Dunch, Dame Eileen Atkins and the incredible Imelda Staunton, it takes a brave man indeed to try and follow that.
Written by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell in 1851, Our Society at Cranford focuses on the lives and social etiquette of a small community in early Victorian England. That the community is almost entirely made up (or dominated at least) by the good widows and spinsters of the parish, gives plenty of scope for gossip, disapproval and shocking social climbing. Not to mention a fixation on the latest style in bonnets!
Ian Dickens’ new revival is faithful to the original 1951 staging of the play, and directs an accomplished cast in a style that will be comfortingly familiar to fans of the TV series. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t quite pay off, as it is all too easy to make comparisons, and Dame Judi et al are just too hard an act to follow.
Unfortunately, as narrator, top-billed Shirley Anne Field – a fine and accomplished actress – in this, appears woefully under-rehearsed, and somewhat disengaged from the story. Far from providing the introduction to Cranford and its women-folk (which may have been a good idea in the 1951 staging, but somewhat redundant today) and a device to move the narrative along, these rather toe-curling interludes brought proceedings to a standstill.
At the beginning of an autumn tour, the show can be forgiven for the very shaky start and a few collisions on a very crowded set with voluminous victorian gowns flying around. These will be ironed out as the production settles down into its run. And despite its shortcomings, there is enough to enjoy in this gentle, undemanding comedy drama to make a pleasant evening out.