Unlike his adaptation of the stories of Dorothea and Doctor Lydgate, Geoffrey Beevers' version of the tale of Mary Garth and Fred Vincey seems self-contained and in being so, more straightforwardly universal. The childhood sweethearts, whose route to happiness and marriage is compromised by a mixture of personal fecklessness and family pride, might exist in almost any place, at almost any time. When specifically 19th-century concerns intrude – from the arrival of the railways, to the repeal of the Corn Laws –these seem like strange distractions from a love story that continues on its own imperturbable rails. Everything here is comprehensible, even a little predictable (an ancestor maybe of today's ubiquitous romcoms) – yet it is nevertheless satisfying, for once again Eliot's cool eye is allowed to reign (and sometimes rain) over her characters.

Mary Garth (Daisy Ashford) is perhaps Eliot's ultimate heroine: self-aware, unpretentious, honest and loyal. She is also a rare character for a stage drama, since her personality never changes; instead she is an almost passive lead as outside forces test her. Though Mary loves Fred she must wait for him to mature from his spoiled youth, while at the same time resisting the charms of another attractive suitor, Mr Farebrother (Christopher Naylor, carefully balancing sympathetic decency with the slight insipidness that helps Mary's loyalty to Fred seem sensible). In fact you could draw up a bingo card from the seven Christian virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility, and count them off as she proves how she maintains each. Daisy Ashworth convinces in a role that might easily seem disjointed given her character's mix of sharp insights, blunt tongue and quiet determination; yet even her gait seems somehow more comfortable and assured than those of the compromised characters around her. 

Beside the heroine's stability Ben Lambert as Fred Vincy provides an excellent foil, as his character moves from lively thoughtlessness into more circumspect maturity (a very different lead role from his portrayal of the frustrated intellectual Ladislow in Dorothea's story). The assured ensemble cast once again occupy multiple roles, with Christopher Ettridge and Michael Lumsden providing the evening's most memorable scene as town bigwigs Bulstrode and Mr Vincy briefly square off. It's a scene typical of all three parts of this adaptation - an encounter wrapped in the genteel terms of the day, the force of which is easy to miss on the page, but is given an immediacy and depth on stage. Similarly the telescoping of the drama allows for an effective contrasts between other small details – including discussions about the lead characters' handwriting. Descriptions that are many pages apart in Eliot's text, are made fresh when they arrive in quick succession. It's in this care for details that both Beevers' adaptation and his production excel.

In spite of a few jagging moments of melodrama, a lighter tone predominates throughout this final installment. It's reflected in the repeated use of dolls (reminscient of canal boat renegades Rosie and Jim) to stand for Mary's younger siblings. These are voiced at different times by different cast members; a sort of Brechtian conceit, which is either charming or annoying depending upon how closely you happen to be sitting to whichever of the cast is cheerfully squeaking.

However this lightness is also arguably the play's only siginificant weakness. Both Mary and Fred have relatively modest ambitions and few regrets. Even when they seem threatened by leaving Middlemarch to take up lonelier lives elsewhere the tragedies of their England seem modest. Neither are ever consumed by fears, and with both backed by large supportive families, they are always favourites to have live happily ever after.

By contrast, when labourers briefly appear, they seem desperate and consequently dangerous; and they have to be cajoled to return to work by threats. Yet this moment of class antagonism is only a blip. They return to work and we do not hear from them again – not while there are nuptials on the horizon.

Finally, I should quickly note Sharon Davy's superior costume design. If you are going apparently I must advise you to look out for the shoes...

Read Jimmy's reviews of The Middlemarch Trilogy: Dorothea's Story and The Doctor's Story.

Middlemarch: Fred and Mary, at Orange Tree Theatre

Lighter than the other parts of Geoffrey Beevers' adaptation of Middlemarch, the story of Fred and Mary is heartwarming, funny, smart and even a smidgen allegorical – just right for Christmas. At the Orange Tree Theatre.

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