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Dated 28th June 2014  

By David Slater, NODA NW

Director

Rachel Rogers

NODA Review - The Vicar of Dibley

The first and most important thing to mention in this review is the enormously important role played by Joyce Branagh in translating several episodes worth of TV material into a coherent and workable stage script. This must have been a mammoth undertaking and taken an enormous amount of both patience and hard work and, for me, Joyce emerged as the star of the show for this Herculean achievement. Making a number of episodes from television work on the stage - especially in the case of working from a relatively popular and well known series which brings with it a set of expectations from the audience - adaptation becomes just as difficult than simply inventing something from scratch and is an art in itself: many congratulations. It is with a heavy heart however that I have to report that, despite the best efforts of Joyce's miracle work with the script, even she couldn't spin the straw of 'The Vicar of Dibley' into theatrical gold.

With a show such as this, it is imperative that the cast do not merely attempt an 'impression' of an actor which the audience will be familiar with from their TV screens: there is no hope of ever coming in anything other than a distant second place to the original if a performer attempts a carbon copy of a character which the audience will be very familiar with. I'm glad to say that the cast at the Hippodrome all brought a fresh and distinctively different take on their TV characters, bringing them to life in their own way and bringing something fresh to the piece. Leading the way in the reinterpretation stakes, Justine Sutcliffe impressed hugely as the titular vicar, Geraldine Grainger: a world away from the Dawn French original, I really warmed to Justine's portrayal in a way that I never did to Ms French as there was a 'reality' and a grounded approach to the part which was refreshing to see. Making a fine job of the verger, Alice Tinker, Emily Rawlinson was, I think, the audiences's favourite of the evening: her characterisation was warm, full of life and brought the best out of the comically inept Alice. David Horton was brought to life with a supercilious, sarcastic edge by Anthony Peter, who did sterling work in effectively leading the ensemble through Act One, with the rest of the parish council also being conjured vividly into life by the rest of the cast. Frank Butterworth brought more than a slightly mischievous sparkle to Frank Pickle and I loved Malcolm Heywood's Jim Trott - another improvement on the TV original here. Larger than life character Owen Newitt was magnificently played by Andy Fraser in a typically strong performance from this Hippodrome stalwart, with Mrs Cropley being nicely played by Christine Kidd. Amiable buffoon Hugo Horton was sympathetically portrayed by Matthew Parker, who really came into his own in Act Two as wedding bells were in the air, culminating in a rather bizarre wedding to round off the evening. Smaller roles were played with confidence by the rest of the cast and the whole ensemble was as at home on stage as audiences have come to expect from a Todmorden production.

An impressive main set - Geraldine's living room - was supplemented by some clean and quick changes from scene to scene, using a range of cloths and subtle lighting to highlight different areas of the stage, with cleverly chosen music to accompany the transitions. Use of the stage was thoughtful and intelligent and as always, the technical team at the Hippodrome did sterling work in constructing scenery of quality and facilitating changes efficiently. Technically adept, very well performed and with a script which couldn't have been improved from Joyce Branagh's interpretation, it's difficult to imagine the 'Vicar of Dibley' being given a better chance to come to life on stage than with this production. Unfortunately, for me, the show was something of a damp squib and other than having the Comic Relief charity peg to hang the show on, the flaws in the show when taken away from the TV screen and exposed on stage were all too apparent and made the exercise fairly redundant as a theatrical enterprise altogether.

The weaknesses of the TV show - devoid of the recognisable television faces giving their pantomime turns in front of the camera to buoy up the rather limp scripts - were cruelly exposed on stage: perhaps by investing their characters with a shade more realism, depth of character and a likability sadly lacking on television, the cast unintentionally showed up the faults of the programme in a way which unfortunately, holed the show below the waterline. Several of the intelligent choices made in structuring the show - the opening with its hymn singing in church; the clever use of the auditorium, opening up the action out from the proscenium arch; the way episodes from television were knitted together very well - made the show a fully fledged stage experience and the society are to be commended for this. Unfortunately, no amount of work from Rachel Rogers and her cast could disguise the inherent weakness of Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer's original creation. The cast gamely struggled along with clunking dialogue, inconsistent characterisation and incredibly feeble 'jokes', not to mention the very problematic tone which ran through the enterprise as regards the audience's engagement with the central characters: their 'cardboard cut-out' personalities resisted any attempt to empathise with or care about them, nor were their antics ever even mildly amusing enough to justify their caricature status either. Asking an audience to spend half an hour in front of the TV screen in the company of these badly drawn characters is one thing; two and a half hours in their company without any interesting developments of plot or character and nothing in the way of interesting thematic material - with precious little humour to lighten the load either! - is asking a lot. Despite their best efforts, not even the stellar team at the Hippodrome could turn the ridiculous into anything approaching the sublime. In fact, it was interesting to compare this TV sitcom's transition to the stage with that of other similar enterprises ('Dad's Army', 'Hi De Hi', 'Allo 'Allo, 'Are You Being Served' etc) if only because it would appear that those hoary old sitcoms from ages past seem to have made the transition to the stage with much more success. Is it that the writing in these sit-coms is better? Or that the broadly drawn characters suit the knockabout farcical stage versions? Is there a greater affection for these period pieces because we have lived with them on our screens for a much longer time? It makes one wonder.

It was certainly clear that the investment of heart and charm, and the great deal of thought that went into this production, was much appreciated, with several set piece moments - the animal service, the wedding, the singalong sections - hitting the spot with the large and enthusiastic audience. As always at Todmorden, there was the usual commitment to quality, providing an evening of thoughtful and carefully put together amateur entertainment. That the choice of entertainment wasn't to my taste doesn't in any way detract from the fact that an almost capacity audience had a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the company of a society whose commitment to excellence on stage remains as strong as ever.

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