We're obviously in a bit of a retro phase at present. Having just welcomed back a revamped Hair, here's a more or less untouched `golden oldie' from 1978 and Bill Bryden's tenure at the National's Cottesloe Theatre. Bryden then was on a roll. Under his stewardship and a famously loyal ensemble, promenading became all the rage. Out of it came The Mysteries and this gentle evocation with the unforgettable folk music of John Tams and the Albion Band, of farming life in 19th century rural England.
Lark Rise to Candleford, adapted by Keith Dewhurst from Flora Thompson's popular trilogy into two parts, Lark Rise and Candleford, told the story of Thompson's memories of growing up in a quiet Oxfordshire village before the Great War. As such it's a story of a forgotten way of being and whilst Lark Rise at least (Candleford joins this week) boasts little of the darkness that makes Synge's Irish peasant accounts so stabbing, this revival by Shapeshifter (acclaimed for their production last year of Hochhuth's Soldiers) is a triumphant affirmation of the Finborough itself in its 25th anniversary year.
With barely room to swing a cat, Alex Marker's wooden platforms and steps work wonders, representing a whole variety of situations from fields to homes to streets to pubs. But the real beauty of John Terry and Mike Bartlett's production is, as it was with Bryden, the experience created by a wonderful ensemble, as adept as singers and musicians (with new musical arrangements by Tim van Eyken) as they are at conveying the communal bonds that bind them together.
Nothing is rammed home. Women gossip, a soldier returns from the Russian front then leaves again; another one, now destitute, is hauled off to the workhouse. But as with all important theatre, it's the way it happens that counts. Blanche Marvin's Peter Brook inspired Empty Space award made this production possible – and the award’s namesake would be proud of a production that measures its achievement in patient detail and luminous honesty.
Theatre doesn't always have to be all dash and crash. Here's a reminder, even in our breathless times, of theatrical magic as simply the art of observing the steady pulse of life. And in the communal dance at the end, of joyously taking part.
- Carole Woddis
Lark Rise and Candleford can be seen individually or, on Saturdays, together.