Jessica Swale's stage adaptation of Hardy's epic, passionate tale coincides with the first new film version since John Schlesinger's in 1967. But banish thoughts of Julie Christie and indeed Carey Mulligan, for Gina Beck is as fresh, funny - and infuriatingly mercurial - a Bathsheba Everdene as Hardy himself could have wished for.
Swale's vision of Hardy's Wessex tale is sweeping, making no allowances for the Watermill's tiny stage. Designer Philip Engelheart, together with lighting designer James Whiteside, both new to the venue, rise to its challenges with terrific coups de théatre, starting with a vision of the heroine rising out of smoke worthy of the dreams of Gabriel Oak.
He becomes the first of the three suitors around whom Hardy spins his romance when she saves him from a fire and this is just the beginning of a series of dramatic events and adventures that are a challenge on the big screen, let alone in a tiny theatre.
A flock of sheep fall over a cliff, a biblical storm threatens ruin, crops are harvested and seasons pass. Rush matting makes effective wheatfields to scythe and a succession of cuddly lamb and sheep puppets manipulated by cast members charm the audience and effectively mark the seasons passing, even if they are not quite as breath-taking as the War Horse models.
'Swale skilfully knits the epic and intimate'
The doomed sheep belong to Oak, so he loses his farm and this best of good shepherds must hire himself out - to Bathsheba, for she has inherited her uncle's farm and is determined to manage it herself. Simon Bubb's Oak is strong and stalwart, brooding and suffering... move over Aidan Turner! He grows exponentially in power as he is buffeted by blows of fortune and Bathsheba's apparently stubborn inability to see what the whole audience cannot fail to notice - this must be the man for her!
Meanwhile the skittish lass also fails to realise the consequences of teasing needy, lovelorn Squire Boldwood (Matthew Douglas, sympathetically vulnerable) by sending him a Valentine and fails to spot that the dashing Captain Troy (Sam Swainsbury, almost earning a hiss and boo!) is a heartless selfish rogue. I won't spoil the outcome for anyone who has not read the book or seen a film version.
But I will praise Swale's storytelling which skilfully knits the epic and intimate with some delightful music making and singing from the talented cast, thanks to evocative original music and arrangements by Catherine Jayes. The set and lighting are wonderfully effective in the more intimate scenes in farm kitchens great and small.
Swale has assembled a chorus of amused and amusing farmhands and devoted servants who comment on the action of which they are at the same time an integral part. They are all vivid characters in their own right. There's Emma Jerrold's Mary Ann, yearning for a suitor of her own, warmly sharing care of Bathsheba - and gossip - with Alice Blundell's Liddy. Lisa Kerr relishes the contrast of doubling as pathetic doomed Fanny, Troy's would-be bride and feisty, funny, rustic youth Cainy. And Ed Thorpe's stammering Joseph threatens to prolong the action into the night.