Inventing a new storyline to support well-known and well-loved fictional characters is a tricky business at the best of times. Many a television and film sequel has come a cropper over this. For her Cranford at Christmas confection, Laura Turner has created new situations and characters and blended these with many of those familiar already through Elizabeth Gaskell’s book and its many adaptations.
So we have Miss Matty (Kirsty Cox) running a tea-shop to which the “Amazons” of Cranford regularly resort, the return of her brother Peter (Mark Middleton), the social pretension of Mrs Jamieson (Jenni Lee-Jones) and the romance between Lady Glenmire (Nicky Diss) and the village doctor (Keith Thomas as Dr Hoggins). As well as a romance between Mary Smith (Rhia Coles) and Major Jenkyns’ friend Major Adams (Trevor Horn). Not to mention a flurry over Christmas carols, cards and decorations and a couple of servant-led sub-plots.
It’s all comfortable and cosy. Too much so, for not all the cast seem at ease in their roles and Rebecca Gadsby’s direction involves too many sequences of characters sitting or standing in straight rows talking at each other. This, of course, may simply be the result of playing very short runs in theatres and arts centres which offer a variety of stage sizes and shapes. Peter Eldridge]’s set is a flexible one, with the tea-shop exterior swivelling to reveal its inside.
Because they are the most naturalistic in performance, Coles, Cox, Diss and Horn come over as the more credible characters. Lee-Jones and Grace K Miller as Miss Pole overdo the caricature element in their roles and I couldn’t always hear Middleton’s soft-spoken Jenkyns. The singing is good and not anachronistic, unlike some of the textual references (Gaskell wrote Cranford in the 1850s but set the action a decade or so earlier).