Fred And Mary – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot

Directed by Geoffrey Beevers

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th January 2014

Seasoned veterans now, we took our seats for this third part of The Middlemarch Trilogy with keen anticipation. Many in the audience were familiar to us now, as were most of the characters, though there were some new folk to get to know as well, both on stage and off. The set looked very familiar too; the yew boles were back in the left corner and there were apples in the leafy branches above. A climbing rose adorned the far corner instead of the bookcase and the furniture was set up for the Vincy’s drawing room. The props under the stools had changed, of course, and I thought I spotted a wig under one near us. We were by the far corner today, so we had another change of perspective but were still close to the action.

The play began with much the same narrated introduction as the other two – hopefully the text will be published some time – telling us about the changes that were happening around that time, the railways and so forth. Then we were in to the breakfast scene where Fred Vincy and his sister Rosamund bickered for a while before going to visit their uncle Mr Featherstone, an invalid who was expected to die soon and leave his estate to Fred. There were other relatives who were lurking in the wings, keen to see the old man’s money and lands come their way, but things didn’t work out as anyone had intended or hoped.

It was at Featherstone’s house that we met Mary Garth. Another poor relation, she had been invisible when we saw the same scene during The Doctor’s Story. This time we saw and heard much more of her. She was an intelligent young lady, both in terms of her reading matter – she referred to both Juliet and Ophelia in her first conversation with Fred – and her approach to life. ‘Earn your living’ was the family attitude, and given the debt-ridden problems of the Lydgates yesterday, it’s an attitude to be applauded.

We had a different problem today – a mobile phone went off while Fred and Mary were having their tete-à-tete, and continued for so long that Fred asked the person whose phone it was to turn it off. It took a few moments, and then Fred could continue his dialogue in the early nineteenth century, free from twenty-first century distractions. Despite his best attempts and her own feelings for him, Fred couldn’t persuade Mary to marry him. She wanted him to make something of himself before she would even consider the possibility, smart girl.

Unfortunately Fred was of a mind to do things the ‘easy’ way. He had taken out a loan from the  nineteenth century equivalent of Wonga.com and thought he could do a quick horse trade to boost his money. When that went badly wrong, he was left with a significant shortfall (£80?) and since Mr Garth had guaranteed the loan, it was Mr Garth who had to come up with the rest of the money. Gone were the savings for one son’s apprenticeship, gone were Mary’s savings, and this was a huge blow for a family who weren’t well off to begin with. Mrs Garth wasn’t happy at all – her complaint that her husband did far too much work for others without being paid for it seemed reasonable in the circumstances – while Fred, to his credit, realised that he’d done a terrible thing to that family.

The younger Garth children were played by rag dolls and were voiced by whichever cast member happened to be handy in that particular corner; I got the impression this was a fun part of the performance for them (by which I mean the actors). The younger Garth boy was a bit of a menace – he hit the cat with a riding crop and it wailed before scooting off the stage pronto. (The fact that it was an invisible cat made no difference to our enjoyment of the cat’s performance – heads turned to ‘watch’ it leave the stage.)

The drama began to build when Mr Featherstone, close to death, asked Mary to help him destroy one of his wills. He’d spent many years telling everyone in his family (and probably anyone else who would listen) that he could change his will whenever he wanted, but this was one change which he wouldn’t be able to make. Mary didn’t want to have anything to do with Featherstone’s request; she was worried that she would be accused of tampering with Featherstone’s last wishes. The second will, the one he wanted Mary to destroy for him, turned out to be bad news for Fred, as it left the bulk of Featherstone’s estate – the land and money – to a distant relative. Mary naturally felt guilty when she realised that she’d prevented Fred from coming into his expectations, but with a remarkable degree of resilience reckoned that it could be the making of him; with no easy money coming his way he’d have to dig deep to show what he was made of. With Mr Vincy summing up the situation for us, they took the interval – what would the second half bring?

At the start of the second half, Mary was back with her family and planning to take up a teaching job to earn her living. Almost immediately, Mr Garth was offered the job of running two estates as an agent, with a good salary. With their money worries over, Mary could stay at home and help her mother while the older son could go off and do his apprenticeship after all – hurrah!

About this time, Mr Farebrother emerged as a rival suitor for Mary’s hand. I say rival; he was friendly with Fred and even helped him to get out of a potential downward spiral which could have cleared the way for Farebrother to wed Mary himself. Fred was unaware of this complication, and gradually it became clear that even if Fred were six feet under, Mary wasn’t likely to accept anyone else as a husband. Incidentally, the billiard room where Farebrother found Fred and helped him out was represented by several of the actors bending over the desk and holding invisible cues – very effective.

With the railways threatening to make an appearance in the vicinity of Middlemarch, the surveyors were constantly subject to attack from disgruntled locals; it was such an attack that Fred happened on, and after helping Mr Garth to drive off the farm workers, he was offered a job as Mr Garth’s assistant/apprentice. Despite Mr Vincy spending a lot of money on his son’s education, Fred didn’t fancy becoming a churchman and relished the idea of an outdoors life. Mind you, he had to improve his writing skills; working folk couldn’t afford the illegible scrawl which the educated gentry were encouraged to develop – their writing had to be clear and neat, so Fred’s work was cut out for him.

Since one of the estates which Mr Garth was looking after happened to be the Featherstone place – the distant cousin had sold it to Mr Bulstrode – the ideal resolution soon became obvious, and Mr Garth wasn’t far behind the audience in suggesting it. Fred was put in charge of the old Featherstone estate, which he had expected to own earlier in the play, and with this achievement he could finally wed Mary. To round off this most happy of endings, they did a lively dance, rag dolls included, and then took their bows. What a perfect ending to the trilogy.

Geoffrey Beevers wasn’t at the post-show today – working – so we finally got to meet some of the actors instead. (The performances for these three days were matinees only, so the actors had understandably disappeared immediately after the previous two shows.) The country characters had Warwickshire accents; the choice had been deliberate as the fictional Middlemarch was based on Coventry. When it came to separating their characters, where they were doubling, Geoffrey had told the actors to look for the similarities in their personalities first, and work from there. It could be difficult when a character appeared only briefly in a scene repeated from another of the plays; there was no chance to build them up beforehand. The novel had also been helpful when it came to creating their different roles.

Again, the future of the trilogy was mentioned; they’re hoping it will be published and picked up by other companies. The excellent performances of the puppets were commented on; they’re experienced performers, both at the Orange Tree and of Eliot, having previously appeared in Silas Marner. The plays have been well received, getting good reviews, and again lots of people commented that they wanted to read or re-read the book. While people can get protective about favourite novels and characters, that doesn’t seem to be a problem here; Geoffrey seems to have captured the essence of the novel and brought out the humour as well.

The actors confirmed that the cast were enjoying the run as much as the audiences. It was difficult initially to get their mouths round some of the lines which hadn’t originally been written as dialogue, but they were coping very well now. The repeated scenes were the hardest to get right; with subtle changes it’s easy to forget which version you’re doing in that particular play, and since they had a period of bedding in each play before doing them all together, the gaps in performance meant they were a little rusty when they re-introduced the earlier ones. Sam’s original offer of three weeks’ rehearsal (I think he was joking) was vetoed by Geoffrey so they had eight weeks rehearsal to begin with: two on Dorothea’s Story, two on The Doctor’s Story, two on Fred And Mary then back to Dorothea’s Story for the last two weeks before opening it. They performed Dorothea’s Story for one week, then did another two weeks rehearsal on The Doctor’s Story, then opened that, etc. A lot of rehearsal time was spent fixing who went where, understandably.

Almost all the lines came directly from George Eliot, although there were one or two small links written by Geoffrey. The cast felt the characters were all recognisable people whom you could meet today, even finding aspects of their roles in themselves after a time. They liked the space; although it can be a bit intimidating to begin with, there’s a great atmosphere and a tremendous connection with the audience, which helps the narration work so well.

Sadly, this marvellous experience had to come to an end, and all I can do now is echo the sentiments of another trilogy veteran who asked “what am I going to do with my afternoons after this?” Ah well, I’ll just have to get the novel and read that.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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