The Orange Tree Theatre has always aimed high and this is no exception. Adapted by director Geoffrey Beevers from George Eliot’s epic overview of Victorian provincial life, ‘Dorothea’s Story’ is the first of a trilogy of plays, each structured around a key inhabitant of the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch.
As the landed gentry around her scheme and gossip, the bright but unworldly Dorothea Brooke ensnares herself in a loveless marriage to moribund rector and scholar Mr Casaubon – while attracting the attentions of artist and writer Will Ladislaw (a suitably dashing Ben Lambert).
Georgina Strawson is compellingly awkward as the earnest Dorothea, a woman stunted by a society that has no place for her intellect. The escalating misery of her relationship with Jamie Newall’s icily insecure Casaubon is a highlight here, as they fail to connect in every way.
There’s not a weak link in the cast. Liz Crowther and Christopher Ettridge hog most of the laughs as the cheerily scathing Mrs Cadwallader and Dorothea’s buffoonish uncle, in scenes pitched somewhere between a BBC period adaptation and a Victorian ‘Yes Minister’.
Beevers skilfully pares back the social theory that fills Eliot’s pages and his occasional use of the cast as a chattering-class Greek chorus is nice. But scenes of tragedy and comedy whistle by equally fast. Without pause for breath, there’s little time to digest the drama.
In spite of falling back (sometimes heavily) on the shortcut of describing rather than showing some events, at nearly three hours this is a long production. But stick with it. This ambitious take on a formidable novel has considerable charm and wit.
By Tom Wicker