The French Lieutenant’s Woman – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

Adapted by Mark Healy from the novel by John Fowles

Directed by Kate Saxon

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 1st September 2006

This was an excellent performance of a marvellous production of a brilliant adaptation – there wasn’t a single flaw in the whole thing. Set design, lighting, and costumes were all superb. The whole cast were excellent, the members of the ensemble supported the leading players magnificently. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how well it’s been transferred to the stage, but I enjoyed this piece so much, it doesn’t matter.

The set was amazing. Designed by Libby Watson, it seemed very simple, yet had many layers and possibilities. Split between two levels, there were curved platforms, curved steps, and in the middle an office space with typewriter and books, cleverly stacked so they could be used to climb up or down between levels. There were metal pillars, as used for seaside architecture, holding up the platforms, and small areas of grass and rock blending in with the scenery. From the steps and upper level rose tall posts, like tree trunks, but with snatches of rope and net, so they could be masts or trees or part of some beach or harbour construction. All very evocative, and it all worked together, so the action could move from outside to inside in an instant.

The play opens with the author, as a character in the play, asking how does he begin? He talks us through the way various characters come and go in his mind, but he ignores most of them. The other actors, in costume, are roaming the stage at this point, as the characters who are trying to catch his attention, and they’re quite miffed he’s dismissing them so easily. However, one character attracts him – he doesn’t know who she is, and wants to find out more. He introduces the character representing himself – the actor comes on like a robot, smoothly enough but without personality, waiting to be ’activated‘. Then the author has to decide how they will meet, and this leads to the opening scene of the hero seeing the French lieutenant’s woman, Mrs Woodruff, on the end of the mole. From here, the author is quite involved in the action, as he has to decide on the characters’ names, stories, etc. As the hero is talking with his fiancée and her aunt, the aunt has to pause several times, waiting for the author to fill in the relevant name. All very entertaining.

From here the author moves back a bit, and the action develops very nicely, with just some narration. We see the repulsive Mrs Poultney profess to charitable inclinations (as long as they don’t inconvenience her too much), and end up employing Miss Woodruff as a secretary, or dogsbody if you prefer. Mrs Poultney is one of those women who has read too much of the Bible and believed it all, at least all the really nasty bits where people (other people, that is) are damned and punished for their sins. As unpleasant an old lady as you could wish not to meet. Fortunately, our heroine stands up to her, and she even stands up to the author! In the job interview with Mrs Poultney, the author has her make some explanation for leaving her previous job. She rounds on him, and tells him she would never say that. Her choice is to say nothing, and so the scene is replayed with her doing just that. A marvellous device, this; it adds so much to our understanding of her character and I assume it follows the book more closely than the film.

We follow the two main characters through their doomed love affair, with various changes being made on the fly by the author, and at least one more significant change made by Miss Woodruff herself – it’s her choice not to tell the hero about their baby. At one point, the author decides to involve himself more closely with the action, and takes on the role of Doctor Grogan himself. He tries out several accents for his opening line, rejects the first two, and finally settles on a mild Irish brogue. (At least, I think that’s what it was – I was never very good with accents.)

All of this was so well done that I fell in love with it. The dialogue was excellent – so often in a Dickens or Bronte or Austen adaptation, the dialogue seems so stilted. It may represent contemporaneous speech patterns more accurately, but it’s bloody awful to have to listen to for hours. This dialogue carried the sense of period beautifully, but also felt real, the sort of things real people would say in these situations. The hero was over wordy and a bit pompous – typical – and Mrs Woodruff was much more direct and blunt, even when lying. The other characters were well formed – Ernestina’s girlish enthusiasm and outspokenness, her aunt’s good sense and kindness, Mrs Poultney’s bitterness and vitriol, Doctor Grogan’s authority and Sam’s ambition – all of these came across clearly, and drove the action plausibly. The interval came after the hero has left Mrs Woodruff in the cabin, and she asks the author, will he return? The author’s answer – I don’t know, give me some time – leads us nicely into the break.

Apart from mentioning that it was fun to see the respectable aunt transformed into a brothel-keeper in one scene, I’m not sure if I can add anything more to this. I might read the book; it’s a good enough play to at least pique my interest in that. I would certainly see it again, if I get the chance, and I would love to get the play text. I was totally drawn into the lives portrayed, the characters mattered to me, and time flew by. It was a great night out, and I would have clapped for ten, if I could have.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

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