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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Martyn Coleman’s version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is one currently enjoying favour. Judy Welsh’s production with the Fairlight Players crests a wave. It’s ambitious for these Players too, well-versed in sheer comedy or melodrama but here taking on a world of nuance and a series of tableaux, not plot-twists. Established in 1950 using Fairlight Hall with a prosc-arch used by them twice annually, this marks a high water-mark of ambition.


Martyn Coleman’s version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is one currently enjoying favour: it was recently produced at the Stables Theatre, Hastings. So Judy Welsh’s production with the Fairlight Players takes this a little further east into a Hall with a prosc-arch used by them twice annually. Established in 1950 the Players often mount productions well out of the ordinary, keeping essentially to comedy.


Cranford’s more adventurous. Set in 1830, it enfolds a napkin of life, nine women of a certain age showing kindness to ten persons, in Auden’s phrase, encroached on by railways, progress, men.


Coleman’s selection of Gaskell’s stories describes nothing less than a revolution in everything we see at the outset: indeed ‘revolution’ is the sparky Miss Pole’s battle-cry standing up to snobs. The most important development though isn’t with the ladies at all: maid Martha’s journey from clumsy inarticulate novice to commanding, witty and loyal landlady is moving, precisely notated and superbly executed by Aisling Edie, who with hapless beau Jem Hern played by real-life husband Thomas Edie, almost steals the show. The way both actors portray awkwardness in character without being awkward requires consummate acting skills – not least tripping over buckets and mewling. For Martha the greater journey to articulate, resourceful, warm-hearted woman further layers her performance.


Narrator Mary Smith looks back on thirty years ago when her younger self embarks on a series of visits to her aunt; her older self stands to the side of the action looking at her younger double, shocked at her youth.


The aunt’s Mattie Jenkins, late Rector’s daughter, thus looked up to by other ladies, excepting haughty Miss Jamieson, herself about to unleash a relative by marriage, Lady Glenmire, upon their aristocratically-untutored manners and parlours. Mary hasn’t purchased a turban for Mattie when in London, saying no-one wears them. Sparky Miss Pole (Charlotte Eastes), a lively, volatile performance discovers this and manages just that. But it’s not bonnet-acting. And Pole is if competitive also warm-hearted and courageous. Eastes gives a lively, volatile performance full of vim and projection.


Jamieson’s the real hurdle. Lady Glenmire not only proves a warm, simply-pleased Scotswoman who cares little for status, she marries the local doctor. Susie Pagett’s appealing here too. Jamieson’s refusal to speak to anyone after they all refuse to cut ex-Lady Glenmire forms one pivot of the plot. Charlotte Miller manages the accent and simplicity winningly; not a large part, but well taken.


The other, after a thrusting time with imaginary robbers devolves on Mattie herself. Jennifer Annetts takes this with a command of modulation and nuance I’ve not seen even from her pervious performances. Always a powerful on-stage presence, with a professional voice that can project through anything, Annetts commands appealingly by shading her articulation, still crystalline. This time she rarely unleashes the projection we’re used to, deploying nuance, sotte voce at some points, always however audible and apposite. Her performance is both moving and contained, layering Mattie with pathos too. Mattie’s parents once banned a marriage to one Mr Holbrook, on account of his eating peas with his knife. She enjoins Mary never to listen to others; and Holbrook’s death (in this production they don’t meet) results in Mattie lifting the ban on Jem as Martha’s admirer.


This too brings dividends as we move to the double heart of the work. The bank most put their savings into is ruined by the first railways boom-and-bust. Mattie loses everything but not before paying Jem his five pounds for an engagement ring; she’s a director, thus responsible. Here Martha’s Aisling Edie proves her comic timing with heart and provides a solution disarmingly simple, in effect a complete social revolution. Even the clandestine help of Mattie’s friends is put in the shade.


There is, however, Miss Jamieson to be broached. Pain finally induces her to seek the very person whose marriage to Lady Glenmire had provoked her dismissal of the society of Cranford: the doctor. And it’s not simply these people whom Mattie needs Miss Jamieson to acknowledge as a friend of Mattie’s.


Welsh directs with a strong feeling for pace, and if four actors dominate the stage for competence, the set, built by the company, is a delight with period features and fine curved tables – sometimes placed too much downstage blocking the action. Naturally a community performance can’t compete with even top-flight amateur productions. Still, the overall production and costumes, abetted with strong pace, a good use of Coleman’s narratives and finally top-flight amateur performances (promising more than that) by Annetts, the Edies and Eastes, as well as good support from Miller makes this a recommendable production, the most ambitious I’ve seen from these players. I do hope they tackle more like this – their next is Yes, Prime Minister. That of course, will follow a very interesting General Election.