Like her creator, Hazel is a heroine full of compassion, empathising with the wild creatures around her woodland home and caring for injured animals. Her extraordinary innocence and wildness inspire passion in two men, poles apart. The Squire Jack Reddin is only a twirling moustache short of a melodrama villain and he loves Hazel with ruthless obsession. The parson Edward Marston idealises his young bride and the marriage remains unconsummated, but this otherworldliness ultimately contributes to Hazel's downfall as surely as Reddin's earthly passion.
Helen Edmundson has fashioned a play by turns as delicate and full-blooded as her source material. And thanks to her fruitful collaboration with director Nancy Meckler she succeeds wonderfully in dramatising the internal life of her characters and externalising the novel's great themes
Niki Turner's huge cage set encloses the action, effectively signifying the traps set for Hazel, a creature living outside the conventions of her time, of which she is gloriously and dangerously unaware. Olly Fox's evocative music and Fiona Clifton-Walker's harpistry conjure the countryside, and with Liz Ranken's spectacular clog dances, evoke emotions from joy to terror as the story unfolds.
Shared Experience field another great ensemble, among whom newcomer Natalia Tena, fresh out of the sixth form, gives a magical performance that makes you fall for the enchanting, occasionally infuriating, Hazel. Her beguiling voice betrays her inmost thoughts in extemporised ditties, more rapt than rap.
Jay Villiers and Simon Wilson are perfect foils as Squire and Parson respectively. Villiers' sardonic magnetism is fatally attractive indeed. Amelda Brown convinces as Marston's suffocating mother and Michelle Butterly is touching as the woman wronged by Reddin.
Roderick Smith as Hazel's father Abel provides much of the unsentimental comedy that keeps Webb's story the right side of melodrama. It's the comedy and exuberance that illuminate this ultimately tragic tale and make you care so much about the outcome.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)