North Country Theatre is a splendid example of what a small company can achieve with no regular national funding. The new association with Harrogate Theatre means that the tour of The Lighthouse on Shivering Sands got off to a flying start in front of a sizeable and appreciative audience, but the five Harrogate performances are an anomaly in a remarkable touring schedule. Between two nights in the company’s home town, Richmond (October 2nd-3rd) and one performance 10 miles distant at Reeth Memorial Hall (December 8th) the company plays something like 50 one-nighters in 10 weeks!
The production is robust enough to cope with such intensive exposure in the village and church halls of Yorkshire. The first half would have benefited from more sharpness and precision, but the irreverent, intelligent and disarmingly simple approach should do the business from Husthwaite to Helmsley, from Pocklington to Peebles (a rare away day!)
Nobby Dimon, North Country’s founding director, has adapted and directed a short story by the prolific, now barely remembered, Yorkshire author J.S. Fletcher which, with its spooky melodrama and character names like Mordechai Chiddock and Jezreel Cornish, seems to invite parody.
Sharkie, the one-eyed boatman, takes the new keeper, Mordechai Chiddock, to the lighthouse. One of the other keepers, Jezreel Cornish, has taken up the post for a spot of rest and recuperation from his murderous pursuit of his sworn enemy – Mordechai Chinnock! A problem for the veteran lighthouse keeper, to keep them apart until the supply ship returns! But he has a secret of his own – and who is the mysterious swimmer – ghost, woman or selkie – who frequents the waters by the lighthouse?
The invention is strongest in the second half, with an inspired scene of the lighthouse keeper conducting Sunday service and Chinnock and Cornish intoning the responses from separate lock-ups, followed by a beautifully judged alternate narration of the two’s past before an increasingly puzzled keeper. The play never becomes quite as funny as I’d hoped, but in compensation ends with a series of genuine narrative shocks.
Simon Kirk (Cornish) and Mark Cronfield (Chiddock) are a well-matched pair of adversaries, with Kirk making the most of his opportunities for comic melodrama, combining Sharkie, the helmsman with a taste for tales of horror, with the swivel-eyed murderer of Chiddock’s account and his self-image as a rather pleasant young chap. Vivienne Garnett is similarly versatile: mysterious mermaid, boldly independent keeper’s wife and assorted angels and whores. Nobby Dimon, amusingly fussy as the keeper obsessed with routine and duty, is totally unfussy in his direction. The set – probably the most ingenious ever to appear in Marton cum Grafton Village Hall – is a triumph for Richard Foxton who was called in through illness at very short notice.
For full list of tour dates visit www.northcountrytheatre.com