Ambitious telling of a winter's tale

Cadfael: The Virgin In The Ice

Malvern Festival Theatre

***

BILLED as a classic medieval murder mystery, this world première stage adaptation of Ellis Peters' Cadfael: The Virgin In The Ice marks the 25th anniversary of Middle Ground Theatre Company.

In this production we meet Brother Cadfael, played by Gareth Thomas (Blake's 7), in the bleakness of winter 1139, civil war raging, with half of Worcester destroyed. Survivors flee northwards and include three innocents, seemingly lost without trace in the frozen Shropshire countryside.

Cadfael sets out to ind the trio, brother and sister Yves and Ermina Hugonin (Hannah Burton and Daniel Murray) from a noble family and nun  Hilaria, (Jenny-May Darcy) whose defiled body is found frozen solid in a brook as the sleuthing monk uncovers murder, treachery and human weakness on his way.

Atmospheric backdrops and effective lighting create visually pleasing settings for the priory and abbey, and the falling snow and sound effects add to the feel of the harsh landscape in outdoor scenes.

An interesting use of film projections adds pre-recorded action, treetop rooks and moving maps to chart our travellers' progress. Traditional Gregorian chants together with original music composed by Ray Mytton and Lynette Webster and featuring lutes and rebeks are notable and delightful features of this play.

However, this was clearly a difficult book to adapt, which made it hard for the audience to fully engage with characters or become drawn in on an emotional level. Despite the promise of intrigue and a tale of passion gone astray, I felt that this passion failed to come across to the audience, and despite a couple of twists there seemed to be a lack of suspects or clues or red herrings which to me are the whole point of such murder mysteries.

Michael Lunney, who adapted this piece, could perhaps have trusted his audience more as it seemed that some points were laboured and we were left nothing to think through or put together for ourselves.

Too many scene changes also broke the narrative flow, and at times there were sniggers from the audience as trees were wheeled on and off by hooded monks. Much of the action occurred to one side of the stage and perhaps more could have been made of the space, and ‘private' conversations held a couple of feet from other characters could have been moved to a different room to make the action more credible.

Perhaps hard to avoid in a monastic mystery, but there was also a distinct lack of female characters with only two of the fifteen strong cast being female, one of whose characters, the frozen nun, sadly dead from the start.

However, it's no mean feat to take on a protagonist as well-loved as Brother Cadfael, and whereas his creator Ellis Peters had twenty novels in which to show us his character, his strengths and his failings, Middle Ground have a mere two acts. Fans of the Cadfael books, radio dramas or the 1990s ITV series starring Derek Jacobi will no doubt be fascinated to see how Michael Lunney has brought this new adaptation to the stage.

Revelations regarding Cadfael's own life history towards the end of the play will enhance their enjoyment, although it may have added more interest to see such personal backstory threaded throughout the whole piece.

Good support from  Alain le Gaucher (Christopher Berry) the mercenary leader of the outlaws, the eventual hero Olivier du Bretagne (Tom Kanji), deputy Sherriff Hugh Beringar (Paul Hassell) and badly beaten monk Brother Elyas (George Telfer).

Speaking to the dashing James Palmer after the curtain fall (he plays the equally dashing Evrard Boterel), it is clear that this is a very tight-knit production company, whose warmth, enthusiasm and professionalism is shared by the whole team. One of the UK's most acclaimed production companies, I will be interested to see what they turn to next.

Not a perfect production, but an ambitious one, with some very aesthetically pleasing touches, and a must-see for all die-hard Cadfael fans.

Cadfael  moves on to Colchester, Buxton, Cardiff and Stevenage.  For more details of the tour and Middle Ground Theatre Company see www.middlegroundtheatre.co.uk.  To 27-04-13.

Amy Rainbow 

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