John Fowles’ multi-layered cult novel, the story of an apparently ‘fallen’ woman who exerts a fatal fascination over a young Victorian gentleman on the brink of marriage, is an absorbing and provocative read, which has made it to the big screen and been adapted for radio as a serial. The challenge of staging it seems even greater, for a serial has time on its side, while cinema can ‘open out’ the action.
Adapter Mark Healy rises triumphantly to this challenge, finding a fine device for telling this story, ostensibly set in Victorian England but with an ambiguous narrative voice that gives alternative versions of its stories. He creates ‘The Writer’, who finds his characters taking over the narrative and forcing on him conflicting versions that they insist on acting out. George Irvine brings him to plausible life with a splendid mix of irritation and wonderment.
The platforms and passages of Libby Watson’s multi-levelled set give director Kate Saxon wonderful spaces on which to set the action. It works on many levels too, providing a metaphor for the clearly-defined strata of a class-ridden society and the labyrinthine workings of the Victorian consciousness, with its conflict between moral aspirations and human fallibility.
Saxon is an Associate Director of Shared Experience and it shows in the wonderfully fluid acting style achieved by her crack cast. They’re equally adroit at in-depth portraits of the principal protagonists and vivid sketches of cameo roles, switching at will from respectable folk of Lyme Regis to brazen whores and lascivious customers in a London brothel.
There’s a marvellous stillness about Kate Odey in the title role; the pain and intelligence in her performance convey the complicated wounded psyche of a woman not so much disturbed, as trapped in the wrong time. She’s perfectly offset by Hannah Young’s lively Ernestina, brimming with joy to be leaving girlhood to fulfil her destiny as wife and mother and then superb as the jilted fiancée moving from pleading to fury.
Anthony Howell’s tortured Charles elicits our sympathy and exasperation by turns, not only in his treatment of the women in his life, but also in his relationship with his manservant Sam; both are trapped in the straitjacket of Victorian class conventions, but Sam aspires to wed and better himself. Sam Talbot’s Sam and Pia de Keyser as the object of his affections provide a refreshing reality check contrasting with the folk ‘upstairs’.