“It takes the death of an animal to make them see sense”
There’s no doubting that here and now, a television adaptation full of television stars is a safe bet for a theatre tour but whilst one may think better the devil you know, this version of All Creatures Great and Small demonstrates the difficulties in transferring something so beloved onto the stage. Simon Stallworthy based his play on two of James Herriot’s original books – If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet – rather than the TV series and though there’s ingenuity in the way it is crafted (without using any livestock on stage…) its flat, episodic nature lacks energy leaving me a deeper shade of blue.
We open with – what else – a cow experiencing difficulties whilst giving birth and inexperienced vet James manages to avert a tragedy with his veterinary skills, ensuring the calf is born with a nice strong heartbeat. From there, we cycle through his arrival in the Yorkshire Dales, being taken under the wing of the idiosyncratic Farnon brothers and meeting 5, 6, 7, 8, any number of gruff farmers whom he has to win over whilst coming to terms with the realities of becoming a practicing vet. And of course it proves to be a summer of love as a chain reaction of events means he meets Helen, his eventual wife-to-be.
Having never read the books or seen the filmed versions, any comparison to previous incarnations of the story are the last thing on my mind so the heavily nostalgic feel of the piece was lost on this reviewer. Where the overly emphatic musical interludes will evoke fond memories for many, to fresh ears they felt awkwardly planted rather than organically integrated into the show. And likewise the chuckles of recognition that came with the arrival of certain characters – Susan Penhaligon’s Mrs Pumphrey in particular – somewhat masked the fact that the script’s humour is gentle to the point of non-existence.
Corrie’s Oliver Mellor’s James is a solid central presence but rather hamstrung by the endless narration he is forced to deliver, 2point4children’s Clare Buckfield’s Helen is never one for sorrow even as she grieves for her mother but her haughty characterisation doesn’t light up the world like it should, and words are not enough to explain the oddness of the casting of Blue Peter’s Mark Curry and former Steps member Lee Latchford-Evans as brothers (the cast really is full of I know him so well moments) even if they do manage to cultivate something of a fraternal bond as they stomp from hapless caper to hapless caper.
Simon Scullion’s set design cleverly tucks the animals away just off stage and combines rural cottage and numerous farmsteads most effectively with theatrical flair, which means that when a live animal finally arrives in the form of a docilely trained dog, it is a moment that’s better best forgotten, adding little of real value apart from an opportunity for the audience to simper. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a production relying on old glories a little too much, rather than creating something invigorating and new but looking at it from the perspective of a fan, you’ll be sorry you missed it if it comes to a theatre near you.