“I deal in ideals”
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles may not seem like the first choice for a musical adaptation as Hardy subjects his literary heroine to several worlds of wrongdoing, mainly at the hands of men, so it is hardly a barrel of laughs. But it is (hopefully) well established now that musical theatre isn’t always just about jazz hands and writing and directing brothers Alex and Chris Loveless are exponents of this, a recent production of The Remains of the Day being a case in point and if this production may overemphasise the archetypal Hardy mood of relentless gloom, it is fitfully intriguing.
The central relationships between Jessica Daley’s Tess and the men in her life, Martin Neely’s Alec D’Urberville and Nick Hayes’ Angel Clare are powerfully done and gripping as all three performers deliver the kind of tortured intensity of which Hardy would surely have approved. Daley brings a spritely spirit to Tess which acts as a useful balance to the misery around her and her emotional connection with Hayes’ romantic Angel is delightful to behold.
The actor-musician ensemble around them are strong enough but particularly in the first half, are used too repetitively and with too little ingenuity to really add to the production. A similar feeling permeates Loveless’s score too, the swirling power ballads that dominate achieve a grand level of emotionality but it is very one-note, there’s nowhere near enough variety to really keep the interest so successfully captured early on.
More crucially, there’s a real mismatch of material and venue which production choices simply serve to highlight rather than hide, Chris Loveless’ direction struggling to achieve the best for the show. The lighting design feels utterly misconceived, the choreography doesn’t seem to have taken into account either the size of the company or the stage, a superfluity of props also clutters up the playing space and a smoke machine works heavy duty to noisily cloud up things unnecessarily.
This very much feels like a work-in-progress so it is perhaps a little surprising to see how long a run it was programmed for in this tiny venue on the side of the New Wimbledon Theatre. For what it’s worth, it does show much promise and I’d love to see it develop further and be restaged for a more sympathetic space, especially if it can hold onto Daley and Hayes as its leads.