A village to delight any visitor

Cranford

Wolverhampton Grand

****

I STARTED with the huge advantage that having neither read the book by Elizabeth Gaskell nor seen any of the three BBC TV adaptations over the past 60 years Cranford was all new to me.

I had no preconceptions, no characters in my head from the novel, no comparisons with characters from TV or even favourite bits which would disappoint if missing. This was virgin territory, a description which I am sure would have had the genteel ladies of Cranford swooning and reaching for their smelling salts. And my first encounter with Cranford was, as those same ladies might have said, most satisfactory.

The first trip to Cranford by the BBC was in 1951 the same year that this stage version, adapted from the novel by Martyn Coleman, made its debut, by happy coincidence, at Wolverhampton Grand on June 18.

Cranford in 1830 was based on the Knutsford in Cheshire of around the same time where Elizabeth Gaskell spent her childhood and it appears to have been a town with clear social divisions, a pecking order from top to . . . well, the working types and servants who were sort of lumped together. Trade was perhaps seen as a little more acceptable then labourer or domestic but there was not much in it. Their social standing was about the level of a gnat's ankle.

Cranford was populated mostly by women and its lifeblood was gossip and rumour where a stranger, or even an unwise shadow, became a marauding gang of three hairy French brigands, one with a hunchback.

TITTLE-TATTLE

The play captures this life of social class and tittle-tattle to perfection with a great sense of gentle fun all set in the parlour of  Miss  Matilda Jenkins, Miss Matty, who dithers her kindly way through life, charmingly played by an Ian Dicken's regular Kathryn Dimery who was last seen, rather a lot of her then I recall, in The Tart and the Vicar's Wife.

Miss Matty, as the Rector's daughter, is up there near the top of the tree but still below  the Hon Mrs Jamieson, played with haughty authority by Hildegard Neil.  Mrs Jamieson holds the trump card of having aristocratic connections – a sister in law who is (doff cap and touch forelock) Lady (pause for effect)  Glenmire.

Her dismay could be felt as far away as Dudley as her bubbly ladyship, played by Judy Buxton, explained her late husband had a minor Scottish title and they could hardly afford to go to Edinburgh let alone London and where hardy regulars in the Court circular.

As she asked about home made jam recipes and, Lord preserve us, a recipe for pig's head, Mrs Jamieson's face was turning to good solid Scottish granite.

When her ladyship went off and married the surgeon Mr Hoggins, played with a sense of fun by Ben Roberts, Mrs Jamieson's world was shattered.

Surgeon counts for nothing when your background is humble and your name . . . so common.

Martha is the new maid at the start of the play and Alicia Grace Turrell gives us a lumbering, gauche country girl who comes into her own in time with her young man Jem, played by Jake Hendriks, who becomes tongue tied in front of his betters – which is pretty well the rest of the characters.

SPREAD GOSSIP

Flitting around are Miss Matty's group of ladies who all wish to spread gossip and outdo each other with the latest news – which is usually wrong in any case - led by Miss, and very proud of it, Pole, played by Karen Ford.

Miss Pole is an expert, or at least likes to think she is, on life from men, who she hates,  to what is happening with Queen Adelaide and court, which she has never visited as well as the latest fashions. She is also a social climber of Everest proportions if there is a ladyship about.

Miss Barker, played by Paula Stockbridge, and Mrs Forrester, played by Susan Skipper, make up the rest of the ladies, adding support and  their own share of gossip.

Behind Miss Mattyand always seemingly there in times of need is Mary, Mary Smith, her young friend played with concern and sensitivity by Isla Carter. The relationship never seems to be made clear apart from the fact she is the narrator at the start of each act, a bit Desperate Housewives style, and seems to stay with Miss Matty a lot for no apparent reason - Mrs Gaskell left it all a bit vague.

The play is beautifully acted and has the elegance and language we expect of the time while the costumes, from Birmingham Rep hire department incidentally, look sumptuous and authentic.

There are a few niggles if you wish to be pedantic, such as self adhesive envelopes being used, something that did not come in for another 65 years or so, indeed at the time Cranford is set there were no commercially available envelopes and they were all home made.

PAGE TURNING THRILLER

As for plot? It is about as thin as the margarine on a church mouse's toast but the books, I am assured, were never page turning thrillers more a diary of life in a 19th century village.

In a way it is hardly surprising it is so episodic as the novel was first published as a serial in 1851 in Household Words, edited by a certain Mr Charles Dickens.

Coleman, to get the running time down to under three hours had to lose many parts of the book, bringing it down to just 10 characters for example, half the main characters of the novel and concentrates on just one main plot line of what happens when the railway and, more importantly, the bank that owns it go wheels up and we see how the village rallies round Miss Matty who is left destitute. No Government bale out in 1830 then.

There are some very human moments in the play, some scenes that are terribly sad, lost loves and lost hopes, but it also has its moments to lift the spirit and it also succeeded in perhaps the most difficult of all - pleasing fans of the TV series.

The sets, as you would expect in any Ian Dicken's production, are solid and believable. You also expect a certain standard from Mr Dickens and this production has raised his personal bar.

It is a gentle comedy, well acted with some real laughs, a few tears and nothing to upset a maiden aunt. To 12-03-11

Roger Clarke

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