Lark Rise to Candleford is the collective title of a trilogy of books by Flora Thompson, which were based on her childhood memories of living in rural north-east Oxfordshire in the 1880s. The young Flora Timms (her maiden name) became Laura Timms, the central figure in her novels, and her family - including brother Edwin (who became Edmund in the books), and parents Albert and Emma - also featured, along with many colourful characters in real-life Juniper Hill (which became the fictional Lark Rise).
Bill Kenwright's touring production is a revival of the 1978 adaptation, by Keith Dewhurst, of the first book Lark Rise. It is set at harvest time in the year before Laura, aged ten, is sent off to earn her living working at the post office in Candleford. It provides us with engaging glimpses of agricultural England and a society which disappeared with the coming of the First World War, interspersed with authentic-sounding folk music (arranged by Alex Hutchings).
A fine cast, which includes Eric Richard (of The Bill), Jonathan Ansell (late of classical singing group G4), Christopher Beeny (Upstairs, Downstairs; Last of the Summer Wine), Sara Crowe and Becci Gemmell (as Laura), and good vocal talents should be a recipe for success. Unfortunately, as in this case, good performances are not always enough.
The problem with Lark Rise is that, although you are served bucket-loads of old English charm and gentle, cosy examples of community “pulling together”, it is delivered through a series of vignettes, with little or no narrative to tie them together. With no distinguishable story, the evening seems to just crawl along in no particular direction. The final scene however, when we are moved forward to the outbreak of the war and we see its effects on the community, is well-observed and moving. Sadly, it is a very long time coming.
Although perhaps truer to Thompson's original book than the hugely successful BBC television series, those familiar with the TV version will recognise the situations in the stage show to have been largely dealt with very early in the first episode, before broadening the narrative to include Candleford and its inhabitants which, I presume, are introduced in the later books. I only wish the stage show had dealt with them so quickly!