Monday, 8 September 2014

REVIEW: Tess of the D'Urbervilles at the New Wimbledon Studio

A literary classic by Thomas Hardy, 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' has received a musical adaptation from the writing and directing duo behind the recent production of 'Bel Ami' at the Charing Cross Theatre, writer Alex Loveless and director Chris Loveless.

The source material is by no means an easy ride; the novel documents the series of misfortunes and wrongs endured by Tess, a simple country girl. Her father hears tell of his families ancient lineage, how their surname 'Durbeyfield' is a corruption of the noble 'D'Urberville', and along with his wife encourages his daughter to claim kin with a nearby strain of D'Urbervilles. This sets her down a road from which there is no returning, and largely at the hands of men she is continually wronged. 

In the titular tole of Tess is the superb, magnetic Jessica Daley. Her vocals soar far beyond the intimate space of the New Wimbledon Studio, and she seems to have a deep, vital understanding of her character's emotional state. It is an admirable achievement that she makes Tess wholly likeable and sympathetic; Daley doesn't simply play Tess as a victim, she finds a great depth and roundness in the role. Her performance packs great emotional punch.

Nick Hayes plays Angel Clare, one of Tess' few chances for hope in the story, and ultimately her one great love. Hayes' performance is faultless. His rich voice and dynamic presence make his performance something very special. Hayes also finds the truth in his character so that his betrayal of Tess is not a flatly hateful act. The duets between Angel and Tess, especially the courting song 'I Deal in Ideals' and the climactic 'Now Isn't Over', are some of the best material in the show, and are so wonderfully performed that these moments elevate the production to a new level. Hayes and Daley are in a class of their own.

Sadly, the show cannot rely on these two performances to make up for its shortcomings in other areas. The development of the plot, especially in the early stages of act one, is rushed and haphazard. The show also doesn't quite seem to know whether it wants to be sung through or not, so the recitative is inconsistent and falls awkwardly on the audience's ears. It also feels like the many ensemble numbers, while well executed, serve only to halt and interrupt the plot, making the show move in stops and starts. There are several boisterous pub scenes in the first act which feel repetitive. The second act is structurally much slicker than the first.

Musically, Alex Loveless' writing shows promise with some good numbers and occasionally so very striking harmonies, but it is not always consistent. Director Chris Loveless makes a lot of the intimate space, but some moments are rushed over - particularly the first meeting of Angel and Tess which passes almost unnoticed by the audience. At times, too, the space feels cluttered, confused and over-populated, especially with the large volume of props used. The distracting technical issues and the irritatingly loud, pulsating and superfluous smoke machine are frustrating, and do not help the performers who at times have to fight to be heard as it is. 

The ensemble, actor-musician cast are generally strong; particularly notable are Alex Wingfield, Martin Neely and Jessica Millward. Having said that, in some of the multi-rolling presentational acting is resorted to, and emotional truth is sacrificed to playing for laughs. 

The production shows potential in many areas, and the cast are certainly worthy of praise. With further development, some shrewd cuts and streamlining, the piece could go further. 

The story of Tess Durbeyfield will always be a powerful tale of the injustices done to women, and this production does preserve that. Sadly, though, despite strong lead performances this new musical fails to achieve the greatness it strives for.

Review by Ed Theakston 

Rating: ★★★

 Tess of the D'Urbervilles plays at the New Wimbledon Studio until 27th September 2014

Cast includes: Luka Bjelis, Jessica Daley, Catherine Digges, Mrac Geoffrey, Emma Harrold, Nick Hayes, Sarah Kate Howarth, Guy Hughes, Jessica Millward, Martin Neely and Alex Wingfield. 

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