Anniversaries can be awkward. Somehow you do feel duty bound to honour them…even if the subject of the celebration is not always obliging.
The Potteries most revered writer Arnold Bennett would have been 150 this year and the New Vic at Newcastle has naturally sought to mark the occasion; choosing to do so with a new dramatization of his early, locally-set, novel ‘Anna of the Five Towns’. There will doubtless be much rejoicing amongst Bennett’s hardened enthusiasts; glad to see his pages come to life; revelling in his characterisations; and thoroughly enjoying the Phoenix Singers pretty parlour songs. But for this reviewer from over the county border, the plot – with its themes of misery and miserliness – is a bit of a party pooper. Normally, I’m a great admirer of Deborah McAndrew’s adaptations; but Bennett’s dourness seems to defeat even her deftness of touch.
Anna is also celebrating. She’s turning twenty-one and inheriting a legacy from her long-deceased mother. She deserves it, too, for her years of keeping house and raising her younger sister. £50,000 in shares and bonds was large sum in 1902. But money can also be awkward; a blessing – or a curse. Her curmudgeonly father chooses to apply the second option as he brutally bloods her in the ways of business that has brought him so much brass. This includes turning the screw on his poorer tenants … an ugly duty he passes onto his coming-of-age daughter.
The setting is reminiscent of Blists Hill – cobbled streets, a red-tiled parlour floor and a wooden pulpit – populated by classic Victorian characters. Robin Simpson’s father is a dark Dickensian dictator; an unbending rod of iron with an unforgiving tongue. His dialect is unforgiving too and, at volume, not always easy to decipher. But his body language tells us all we need to know.
Unsurprisingly (as he has been the only influence on her life so far) Anna does tend to emulate him. Lucy Bromilow plays her as a stiff, starchy and brisk young woman, with hands pressed tightly together. We do see her open out as her head is turned by new horizons and the attentions of an earnest young man; but her indoctrination is slow to fade. Fortunately, she is surrounded by warm-hearted individuals who introduce helpings of light humour into proceedings.
Rosie Abraham is playfully perky as her inquisitive school-age sister. Susie Emmett and Molly Roberts are wide-eyed and smiling as the mother and daughter who lift her from her struggles with chocolate crèmes and a fortnight’s respite on the Isle of Man. And I was most impressed by Andrew Price who plays a self-serving manic preacher, a down-trodden suicidal potter, and a benign and benevolent holiday host. He has the ability to capture a character just by the way he holds himself. I had to check the programme to ensure it was the same actor playing all three men.
So as a study of purpose, personality and how to make pots, Bennett gives us plenty to appreciate. But the plot is tame, the emotions are pale, and the signposting of shifting affections unclear.
The final dramatic moment Bennett fans had been waiting for (wanting to know how it was going to be done live on stage) is excellently executed with the aid of a cleverly conceived, hurtling, projection. But with insufficient earlier clues, the motivation for it comes out of the blue. It capped my growing sense of dissatisfaction and left me understanding why the New Vic had not previously trodden this path.
That’s the problem with anniversaries. They can tempt you into doing something you’ve wisely avoided doing before.
Picture Andrew Billington
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