The rule of thumb is that the third in a trilogy isn’t much cop. Not so here. With this witty tale of family in-fighting and enduring love, the Orange Tree Theatre rounds off its three-part adaptation of George Eliot’s masterful nineteenth-century novel ‘Middlemarch’ in style.
Whereas the first play – the enjoyable ‘Dorothea’s Story’ – suffered from sub-plot overload, ‘Fred and Mary’ has a tighter focus and more time to catch its breath as it picks up another of the novel’s many strands. Director Geoffrey Beevers channels Eliot’s socially-inflected dry humour into a spry rural soap opera, as the family of loathsome landowner Mr Featherstone squabble over his money while he lays dying upstairs, clutching his money box.
Great digs at social expectation and snobbery abound as the play heads deftly to its first-act climax – the revelation that handsome but feckless Fred Vincy isn’t in for the financial windfall he’d imagined.
The superb cast create a crowd of comic grotesques in these scenes, occasionally stepping out of character to fire pithy asides into the audience. In-the-round staging pulls us into the joke, and papers over the cracks of a more disjointed second half.
Ben Lambert’s bewildered Fred is a loveable idiot, putting his foot in it at every turn. His clumsy courting of Daisy Ashford’s exasperated but generous-natured Mary is the play’s beating heart. Refreshingly, their characters aren’t saints or sinners, just two normal people finding their way towards each other. Patience and diligence are virtues to be rewarded, both here and by this delightful trilogy as a whole.
By Tom Wicker