Period drama is enjoying a popular renaissance with Downton Abbey hugely popular on television, and Steampunk Victoriana gaining traction on the page. Garrick Artistic Director Adrian Jackson continues to have a keen eye for combining the artistically interesting ,with what audiences will come to see, and was rewarded with a big opening night turn out for The Woman in White.
The play follows the story of Walter Hartright, a handsome art teacher, who is assailed by the Woman in White on a London road at midnight where she pleads with him for his help to prevent her from being taken to an asylum. .Love, suspense and danger all combine to create a haunting mystery of mistaken identities and stolen fortunes, heroism, high drama and volatile passions.
Originally a best -selling novel by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens, it caused a sensation in London and New York in 1860, and has been adapted into a stage drama by Nicola Boyce. Both Collins and Dickens would serialise their work in the likes of The Observer and The News of the World. Their stories were the soap operas of the day. As I watched this drama, unfold I was struck by the similarities of plot with modern day soaps such as Coronation St. There is a secret which must come out. There is a wrong which must be righted. There is money embezzled. There is deception, arson and death- and there is humour and pin sharp observation of the human condition.
A strong cast includes Colin Baker, fondly remembered as a Doctor Who. Colin performs alongside Peter Amory, famous for playing evil Chris Tate in Emmerdale and Karen Ford who played the art teacher ‘Miss Booth’ from Grange Hill. However it is Nick Rohan as Walter Hartright who caught my eye. He was the glue that held the production together giving an understated, but essential, performance which allowed those around him to shine. Inevitably Colin Baker made the most of the flamboyant character of Count Fosco.
The play is long, but engaging, from opening to closing curtain it is three hours. Director Ian Dickens wisely delivers it in three Acts with two intervals ensuring that audience fatigue does not set in and offering extra opportunity to discuss events in the bar. It is presented in episodic form, in thirty three scenes, providing focus and energy to each segment. With so many scenes, the stage and scenery crews are very busy. The interior sets are well dressed and sumptuous, with good use of front of curtain sequences. A minor quibble was the failure to drop the curtain to provide a visual break between a drawing room, and grave , with the headstone fully lit next to rugs and chairs! Victorian drama is a great opportunity for actresses , leading ladies Emily Woodward and Nicola Weeks lit up the stage with their flowing dresses and period affectations.
Not only does this play boast plot parallels with modern day soaps, it also offers themes which are timeless as well. The young suitor pursues his love for love, not money. Two sisters are devoted to each other whatever life throws at them, celebrating the joys of friendship and loyalty. Greed and avarice are doomed. There is even a secret society thrown into the mix too. Nicola Boyce is also to be congratulated in presenting the patriarchal mores of the time in such a way that the audience is rooting for the wronged leading lady, reflecting feminist attitudes which had not found expression when the story was written. This production is an inspired revival, delivered with style and aplomb.
The Woman in White , runs at the Lichfield Garrick from Tuesday 26 February to Saturday 2 March, before appearing at the Theatre Royal in Windsor and the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold later in the month.