So just whose idea was it that this should be gothic week? Woman in White in the West End, The Hound of the Baskervilles in Nottingham, and now The Bells In fact, we owe The Bells to Barrie Rutter's unavailability to take responsibility for the Northern Broadsides autumn production; and so, after 12 years of working with him as a close associate, he was forced to confer the entire project on Conrad Nelson.
It doubtless hurt, but it proves to be an excellent solution. Nelson takes a text well away from the Shakespeare and the Greeks that Rutter specialises in - and, indeed, from the Restoration which is apparently to be next season's treat - and refreshes the Broadsides brand in a way which takes it forward without threatening its roots.
It comes as a surprise, to one brought up with Tony Hancock's parody, that "The bells! the bells!" of Henry Irving fame were not the massively intoned clappers of Notre Dame, but rather the dainty jingle bells of a dark and stormy night in Alsace. Here in his inn, the landlord, 15 years after the disappearance of The Polish Jew (of great wealth) has to face his demons as his daughter marries the local copper, who suddenly takes a professional interest in the unsolved mystery. Alas, there's no great mystery: it's all pretty obvious, from where we're sitting in the audience who is responsible.
The original Leopold Lewis script doubtless gave Irving plenty of scope for his high octane actoring at the Lyceum and on tour throughout the realm. Here, a new version by Deborah McAndrew brings an impressive poeticism, full of alliteration and assonance, which emplaces a new backbone in the story, and the musical embellishments by Nelson - with eclectic borrowings from Maxwell Davis to folk - succeed in creating a superb theatrical celebration to thrill the spirits. And yes, even with Rutter out of the way, we get the Northern Broadsides signature clog dance.
It's all smashing stuff, and the Broadsides tradition of rough theatre, with actors providing music and sound effects on everything from saws to bodhrans, is firmly in place. Sean O'Callaghan has the biggest acting challenge as Mathias, and on press night appeared to have over-Ruttered by being simply too loud: but he'll sort that out and give a strong and impressive performance. The rest of the company, it has to be said, get little acting opportunity but provide a first class presence.
Conrad Nelson has made the most of his moment in charge, providing an evening of superbly recognisable Broadsides excellence without threatening boss Rutter's throne.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax)