LIFE in Cranford is stuffed with the minutae of day to day existence and it has, rather perversely considering the humdrum nature of it all, kept readers and viewers enthralled for more than 150 years.
So bringing it to the stage in time for the festive season was a great idea by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company and this adaptation by Laura Turner formed the first part of a double bill by the group who return to The Grove next Saturday for its Yuletide partner, A Christmas Carol.
They make a fitting double bill. Elizabeth Gaskell followed Dickens about eight years later in publishing her novel in 1851 about the ever so genteel ladies of a small North of England village whose very life is governed by the unspoken rules of decorum and etiquette.
There’s always a danger that on stage the mediocrity of their lives would fail to live up to great expectations but the author’s richly drawn group of characters are brought splendidly, and, at times, comically, to life by a cast of nine professional actors who quickly make you forget the 21st century.
By the finale and the inevitable snowy Christmas scene we have fallen in love all over again with timid tea shoppe owner Miss Matty Jenkyns, her bubbly companion Miss Smith, the belligerent man-hating Miss Pole and even the old battle axe and society snob Mrs Jamieson.
The stories inter-twined to give a tale about the arrival of two handsome strangers, a mystery thief, an unexpected pregnancy and, of course, preparations for Christmas.
It was a performance that took a while to warm up but you were quickly sucked in by its charm once it got going.
Grace Miller powerful and frequently funny performance dominated every scene that she appeared in as Cranford’s answer to Scrooge. Her Miss Pole was pure Hyacinth Bucket, right down to Patricia Routledge’s grimaces and speech. She was a busy body and gossip who gave carol singers short shrift and whose tactless remarks almost created havoc with village Yuletide festivities.
Miller also displayed, when called for, an excellent singing voice, and the brief musical interludes which featured a medley of Christmas carols enhanced the seasonal splendour of the production.
This was pure Victorian soap and it was a delight to bathe in its innocence and fun. Pretty much the entire audience went home with a smile on their faces after being entertained by a story with no great highs or lows but enough costumed whimsy to provide sustenance for a night.
Rhia Coles as Mary Smith gave a subtle and understated performance while Jenni Lea Jones as Mrs Jamieson found herself being upstaged by a foxy looking glove puppet who played her adored lapdog.
Chapterhouse, who are usually to be found performing open air theatre, particularly at Woburn Abbey each summer, return with A Christmas Carol on Saturday, December 3. For tickets call the box office 01582 602080 or go online www.grovetheatre.co.uk
*For those who missed it Cranford returns at Stantonbury Campus tonight (Friday). for tickets call the box office 01908 324422.