Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Ros Davies' Mary-Ann brings a bit of gossip the the farmhands with Daniel Robert Beaton as Gabriel, Michael Parker as Joe, Paul Holton as a labourer, Richard Woodward as Jan and Steve Fisher as Matthew Moon who seems to know every grandfather who ever walked the earth.

Far from the madding crowd

Hall Green Little Theatre


Thomas Hardy’s 1874 tale of love among the lambs and hayricks of the Victorian countryside was his fourth novel and the first to find commercial success; it was also the first to be set in his fictional county of Wessex with it’s Casterbridge, Shottsford and Weatherbury.

Like many of Dicken’s works earlier, it first appeared as a monthly serial in a magazine, but even revised by Hardy as a novel it still runs to 400 pages and around 140,000 words – which is a lot to condense into a stage play.

So, Jessica Swale is the real star of this production for her 2015 adaptation for the Watermill Theatre at Newbury, which keeps the essence of Hardy’s rural romance without the audience needing to bring sandwiches to keep them going.

Not only that, she manages to inject some humour into Hardy’s bucolic idyll – comedy not being his strongest suit - and takes the story along elegantly, clearly and logically.

The tale itself is simple. Gabriel Oak is an honest, hard-working sort of bloke with his own, leased, farm, who falls for newcomer Bathsheba Everdene, even asking her, unsuccessfully, to marry him.

She moves away and that could be the end of the tale except Gabriel’s new, inexperienced sheepdog, drives his entire flock of 200 sheep – bought with borrowed money – over a cliff leaving him farmless and penniless.

He ends up looking for a job, she ends up inheriting her uncle’s farm, he ends up working for her.

Daniel Robert Beaton is a solid, reliable Gabriel, a man who has a way with animals and farms, but it seems, not with Bathsheba, given a flighty air by Samantha Michaela Lawson. Bathsheba is a bit vain, headstrong and independent both spiritually and, since becoming a farm owner, financially.

Lawson gives us a character who is both strong and vulnerable – and one who seems to enjoy being wooed by a succession of suitors.


Daniel Robert Beaton as the noble, loyal Gabriel

With Gabriel a lowly shepherd on her farm, next would-be lover to appear is Andrew Cooley’s Farmer Boldwood, the wealthy, bachelor landowner farming next door. Bold . . . perhaps not, but wood? That sums him up. A wooden, reserved, boring bloke, happy to drift along in his contented if uninspiring routine.

That is until Bathsheba, for a sort of laugh, or at least a diversion, sends him a Valentine’s card with no real feeling behind it. Boldwood asks Gabriel whose writing it is, and honest Gabriel tells him. And that creates an explosion, or perhaps more a flurry, of lust and longing for Bathsheba, feelings which slowly grow into a fatal obsession over the years.

Two down and one to go; enter Sergeant Francis Troy, tall, handsome and charming, in that caddish, unreliable, untrustworthy sort of way.

Al McCaughey is a splendid Troy. There is nothing about him you can really dislike and nothing about him you can trust.

So Bathseba, having rejected Gabriel and led on poor lovelorn Boldwood, with no intention of carrying it through, falls for, and even marries Troy, the only bad sort for miles around, only to find he has no interest in farming, is a spendthrift and an inveterate, and not very successful, gambler.

He also carries a torch, burning bright, for Bathsheba’s former servant Fanny Robbin, who had run off to marry her soldier boy. It would have happened too, if she had gone to the right church. As it was Troy had stormed off, his vanity seeing her lateness as nothing less than his humiliation.

Fanny is played by the reliable Rachael Louise Pickard who gives a convincing portrayal of Fanny’s slow descent from a servant hoping to live happily ever after with her Troy, to the destitute, pregnant, dying broken woman reduced to the workhouse.

It will come as no surprise that the dastardly Troy will get his comeuppance and Gabriel’s love and loyalty will be rewarded.  

There is good support from another regular, Ros Davies, as Bathsheba’s servant Mary-Ann and Kathryn Fisher as the maid Liddy, the pair being an amusing double act foil to their mistress.

Then there are the farmhands led by Richard Woodward as Jan; there is the stuttering Joseph Poorgrass, played with an amusing p-p-p-p-pain-f-f-f-f-f-ful slowness by Michael Parker and Paul Holtom weigh in as a vicar, labourer and half the population of the village.

Alfie Redmond steps in from Youth Theatre as the young lad and assistant shepherd Cainy Ball while Geddes Cureton, usually seen, or rather not seen, tucked under the stage on the piano at panto time, or whenever live music is required, has been allowed above ground for once to play a mean accordion in English folk style for both the songs which open the show and those which pop up at celebrations, as well as incidental music between scenes.


Al McCaughey as the selfish, heartless Sgt Troy with Samantha Michaela Lawson as Bathsheba

With him on bodhrán, that Irish, frame drum much loved by traditional folk groups, is Roy Palmer and together the pair jolly things along – you almost expect a band of Morris dancers to appear at times.

There is an excellent ensemble among the 18 strong cast who provide villagers, workers, congregations and a whole population of Weatherbury – and who could forget the sheep and lambs complete with, should we say, woolly legs, created by Ceri Sian, to give that hint of country air, all on a clever set designed by director Jean Wilde, that gives a rural feel yet is flexible enough to be the basis of every scene whether at a hiring fair or a church.

And scene setting is helped by a well thought out lighting design from Wilde , Palmer and Paul Hartop.

Wilde keeps control of her large cast well - it never looks like a crowd on stage - and her use of steps stage left, right and centre, as well as exit doors in the auditorium expand the production base and add interest.

Costumes, designed by Julia Roden looked authentic which all contributed to a fine production of Hardy’s classic. Opening night, which ran at almost three hours, lacked a little pace at times, not noticeably slow, but there is room for improvement and with first night out of the way, that will come quite naturally.

It is not an easy play but Wilde and her cast told the story well with some lovely humorous touches, particularly Joseph’s marathon song – which seems to be an early 19th century version of Mogadon - to produce an entertaining evening which does full justice to Hardy’s classic. To 31-03-18.

Roger Clarke

*Hardy's title is taken from Thomas Gray's celebrated 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.


Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 and the use of madding here means frenzied.


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