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Brighton Year-Round 2019

The Mill on the Floss

Brighton Little Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Costume, Drama, Live Music, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Claire Lewis, with a new score by Michael James and movement direction by Graham Brown and set design by Michael Folkard, lighting design and lighting and sound operation by Beverley Grover with sound design by Richard Lindfield. Costumes are by Barbara Campbell, Margaret Skeet, Ann Atkins. Patti Griffiths designs wigs, hair and make-up with Frankie Knight. Ensemble member Stephen Evans is also Stage Manager. Sophie Griffiths, Henfield Players and The Southwick Players also support. Till August 17th. Transfers to BOAT 21-24 August, and The Minack Theatre September 2-6.


Three Maggie Tullivers; simultaneously. Shared Experience knew what they were about, asking Helen Edmundson to adapt George Eliot’s 1860 The Mill on the Floss. From 1994, it remains Edmundson’s most thrilling adaptation, where being this bold means a production soars or crashes.


This soars. There’s nowhere to hide and this is one of the finest BLT productions of recent years. And like the three Maggies, there’s three places to see it.


It’s not an adaptation, more a re-orchestration, re-arranging, re-imagining. Yet Edmundson’s entirely faithful to the story: she compresses, adding musical and choreographic expressivity; and the tussles of three Maggie Tullivers with each other – occasionally ganging up on an object of passion.


The story of a passionately intelligent, intelligently passionate girl constrained by Victorian mores to stifle her feelings might seem commonplace. But this remains the most explosive, most erotically charged exposé of a girl challenging society’s hypocrisy. Not least for charting Eliot’s own life, a father’s death leaving her to the shackle of a resourceful, fanatically hard-working, far less clever brother: one determined to constrain her. Like Maggie, Eliot rebelled against her brother Isaac: unlike Maggie there was no reconciliation, but there was life. The Mill on the Floss follows a different path. Edmundson’s brilliance lies in staging Maggie’s inner conflict as dramatically as the story; so the two battle it out with Maggie’s different selves.


Fluidly directed by Claire Lewis, there’s a new score by Michael James both memorable and rich as film-music themed for each Maggie. It’s hard to believe such a score graces a nominally amateur production. But this isn’t amateur in any but literal sense. There’s an professional opera singer, a series of arrangements of a passage from Thomas-a-Kempis and Hook’s ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’ sung with haunting intricate descant by Alan Stewart and Robert Purchese, Philip Wakem and Stephen Guest respectively who end unwitting rivals for Maggie.


Other choral arrangements – ensemble or solo – stud throughout: they’re freshly-imagined here. In particular opera singer Ciru James sings a piercing solo as ensemble lead to close the first half. Stewart has a couple of signature Handel Arias ‘Did you hear my lady singing?’ and ‘Where’er you walk’ from Semele.


Movement direction by Graham Brown has the cast and particularly three Maggies emulate windmills and immersive gestures, something that can teeter on absurdity if not just right. It’s miraculously effected particularly by the main character’s three avatars. We begin with an ensemble witch-ducking and drowning the innocent, burning those who can swim, out of Defoe’s Book of the Devil, the first book Maggie quotes with relish. At one point the Devil appears to First Maggie in a tiny role by Howard Abbott. Unlike Shared Experience who doubled roles in a still-sizeable production of eight, this one goes for a cast of 20.


Set design’s by Michael Folkard, a simple mill interior with bleached wood and luminous backdrop, also bleached wood with white sandbags, a shelf stage-right where books perch, and sometimes knitting. There’s old chairs on occasion but it’s a gratefully fluid space where green silk sheets do for rising waters; a rope lasso for a boat.


Lighting design with lighting and sound operation by Beverley Grover lights the tabula rasa of the lighting grey with key colours, starting with river-green. Sound design’s by Richard Lindfield involving music but particularly cracking timbers, horse-hooves clattering on cue with other incidentals neatly brought on.


Costumes by Barbara Campbell, Margaret Skeet, Ann Atkins are outstanding. For instance the first two Maggies don dove-grey dresses of different lengths with key changes to a red-and-white check necker-scarf. The last Maggie in turquoise blue breaks out. Sourcing period garments from top hats and jackets through silken cravates of mint and pink though to threadbare finery the aunts deploy, is breathtakingly good. Again this is professional standard.


Patti Griffiths and Frankie Knight design wigs, hair and make-up, called on throughout, particularly dealing with Maggie’s shorn hair.


The three Maggies depicting age stages 1829-39 also conflict: it’s no simple progression. Naoise Wellings is immensely appealing as the quick, headstrong girl of nine who explodes to the veiled delight of Bill Griffiths’ indulgent Mr Tulliver – a wild mix of avuncular fondness and implacable vengeance against Lawyer Wakem, one of Ciaran O’Connor’s two roles, here all urbane sneer. Wakem wins and with the Tullivers ruined Tom determinedly earns enough to pay off creditors, after his father’ death (collapsing after thrashing Wakem) even buying their mill back.


The excellent Nik Balfe here transforms into an upright, rigid young tyrant, conditional in his love for Maggie. Slow with books he scores as a man of business taking initiatives his father marvels at. Balfe captures an earnest yet resourceful prig, the businessman his father could never be – whose temper had triumphed over tactics. Tom’s is deflected at an easier object: his sister. Edmundson – like other adaptors for TV and radio – doesn’t dwell on Tom’s warmth so much as an appalling belief Maggie belongs to him, something another lover – not Philip – also declares.


Tom won’t have Maggie earning publicly. And won’t have her consort with crippled sensitive, true-hearted Philip Wakem, Maggie’s only friend at the time. Naturally Philip falls in love with beautiful, most of all fiercely intelligent Maggie. He’s the one who sees her and in Stewart’s superb rendering of a sensitive man walking with a polio-curved limp, we see an exemplary performances, matching Wellings’ superb, always focused energy.


Yet Stephen Guest, in Robert Purchese’s exquisitely modelled dandy, is ardent and if flirty – he’s nearly engaged to poor Lucy Deane (Lucy Mae Knight) Maggie’s sweet friend – he’s also passionate and despite herself Maggie concludes ferociously ‘I want him’.


We’ve moved to the Maggie conflict zone. As Wellings gives way to repentant mid-teen Second Maggie spouting self-sacrifice and Thomas-a-Kempis, we see a retreat of Maggie’s demonstrativeness. Except in Keziah Israel’s exquisitely-wrought young Victorian woman, Israel elicits passions even more intensely: dawning sexuality burgeons with churchy self-denial. Israel brings out the heart of Maggie’s conflict.


As the Third 19-year-old Maggie Mandy-Jane Jackson lets out a defining razor wit with sensuality: refusal to surrender to Stephen, with archly funny scenes alongside Knight’s sympathetic Lucy. Jackson underscores Maggie’s maturing selfhood in relation to Lucy, Tom, Philip. That conflict between grasping love and losing others climaxes; even if Philip proves forgiving, Lucy too. But that’s in hindsight after Maggie hesitates again.


The constant balletic tussle between Wellings, Israel and Jackson explodes here: Wellings always mischievously scampering round the others on the side of love, tugging at Jackson; whilst Israel snags Jackson’s faux-awakening-conscience.


Earlier there’s exquisite comedies of china  too. It’s Austen-esque as one commentator put it, acid drops at tea-time. Helen Schluter’s Mrs Tulliver who might lose her children and furniture as almost a third child is played with perfect air-headed vacuity. Schluter avoids making Mrs Tulliver ridiculous but provides a superb foil to Ann Atkins vinegar-queen Aunt Glegg, a waspishly performative gem.


There’s contrast – apart from Griffith’s sterling Mr Tulliver – in Glenys Harries-Rees’ conciliatory Aunt Pullet, and kindly Uncle Pullet – John Tolputt doubles as equally sympathetic vicar Dr Kenn. Nick Roche as Uncle Glegg has the role of being silenced by his wife, uttering more as Mr Stelling the schoolmaster more fazed by Maggie’s cleverness than Tom’s dullness.


O’Connor shines as kindly Bob Jakin, Dickensian in his unthinking munificence. Mike Skinner’s Bailiff is walk-on menace. Ciru James is an outstanding singer, piercing low soprano range laser-clear. Frankie Knight, Flo Unwin, Stephen Evans complete this agile ensemble. 20 on a tiny stage is something taken for granted in BLT productions, though there’ll be chances to breathe in the next two venues.


This isn’t an adaptation, it’s a landmark re-imagining. With new music that would more than grace the West End (and more memorably than several productions there) this consummate, flawless production is an event for BLT and Brighton too. Stunning.