The Brockley Jack studio is a versatile space but even making use of a thrust layout with audience on three sides, I didn’t feel any closer to the story. The stage is sparsely furnished with a wooden bench and two chairs. Scene changes are denoted by the change in lighting and soundscape, which ranges from birds tweeting to rain and heavy thunder. The latter seems unnecessarily heavy when it precedes the line “there’s a storm coming”. The music switches between piano and a somewhat clichéd mournful cello as we flit between scenes that are so quick (some only one word long) that you get a sense of a filmic montage of young Charity Royall’s life. However, with no set, the three actors are forced to step out of the light for a moment before turning on their heels and beginning a new scene. So much was the movement, I found myself becoming irritated by the sound of foot-shuffling on the bare floor, particularly from the awkward young architect Lucius (Jeffrey Mundell) as he struggles to express himself.
The performances are good, with Joanne Gale capturing the headstrong girl with all the sarcasm and moodiness that you’d expect from a teenager without seeming incongruent to the time. Francis Adams is perfectly cast as the patriarchal Royall, creating a good man whose morals you can begin to mistrust as the story unfolds. In the second half, there is a lovely moment as he addresses the audience (as the townspeople) and you get a real sense of his guilt and fear underneath his speech. Mundell, in a subtle performance, builds a steamy chemistry with Gale and the two express a very convincing love for each other.
Edith Wharton may be an American Catherine Cookson in her style, commenting on social convention with tales of doomed romance, but there simply isn’t enough in this stage adaptation to keep people entertained. There is one interesting plot twist and a bit of mystery surrounding the people on the mountain but not enough is done with it. We are shown only lucid snippets of action but have little time to connect to them before another montage begins and we’re whisked, dreamlike, to the next scene. Without time to connect, we are left little chance to sympathise with Charity and instead there is a sense that the play would never end, that there would be no climax. Perhaps Julia Stubbs Hughes has attempted to fit too many of the events of the original story into the play which creates a need to fast-forward through any character development. All we can take from it is how tragic Charity’s life is.
The play focuses on the three main characters, making use of soliloquies and one-sided conversations to imply other characters from the book. We can focus on Charity’s heart-breaking reaction as she watches her rival Annabel Balch and both her wounded pride and determination from pawning her treasured broach to cover Dr Merkle’s fee. Individually, these moments work well as they give us a filmic close-up of Charity whilst keeping that sense of her isolation.
Again, the only problem is how many of these scenes there are. A small, talented cast and simple set are the ideal elements for a strict budget, but a story so complex contains too much to be complemented by this simplified arrangement. Dramatically, the original story is difficult because of the central character: from the dullness of the sleepy town of North Dormer, she enjoys the company of a not-particularly-charismatic young man but from this point, and I apologise if this spoils the plot here, things go from bad to worse for her at the mercy of everyone else. Despite her determination, Charity is unable to influence anything that will come to good for her. As an audience, and in spite of Gale's performance, I therefore found her difficult to connect with.
This is a well performed production, but I feel the playwright has bitten off more than can be chewed with this adaptation and there needs to be some judicious editing before it can better engage an audience.