First published in The Times, Saturday September 7 2019
It is easy to see why Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 social novel should resonate in an age of Remain versus Leave. The book is structured around a series of binary oppositions. As well as the contrasting of the pastoral south of England, where the heroine Margaret Hale comes of age, with the industrialised north, to which the Hale family moves, Gaskell explores tensions between received wisdom and dissent, authority and a restless workforce, class and conflicting approaches to matters of the heart.
Elizabeth Newman’s production for Pitlochry, based on Janys Chambers’s adaptation, does an admirable job of balancing the personal with the political. At the show’s heart is a fine performance by Claire Dargo as Margaret, the well meaning if at first rather naïve young woman, who arrives in a northern mill town and is appalled by the impoverished conditions faced by the workers, bearing witness to a series of increasingly violent strikes.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The stumbling, unlikely relationship between the bold, compassionate Margaret and John Thornton (Harry Long), the stolid, uncaring factory owner she attracts, is made compelling by a pair of sympathetic performances. Like Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, there is palpable pleasure in the delayed gratification of their romance, including audible laments throughout the auditorium whenever Margaret rebuffs John’s declarations of love.
As in Pitlochry’s recent adaptation of Hard Times (written by Gaskell’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, and covering similar territory), the simple, striking design, this time by Amanda Stoodley, effortlessly captures the contrasts in the novel, with Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting transforming the tranquil, pastoral backdrop of the early scenes into a forbidding townscape. The presence of a large community cast swells the ranks for the scenes of industrial unrest, spilling from the stage and commentating from the stalls.
Pic: Douglas McBride
There are limitations to Chambers’s adaptation. In a production that runs to around two hours, some of the subplots feel rushed while several scenes fall back too readily upon exposition. Some of the supporting characters are not quite given their proper due, either, although there are a number of good performances among the ensemble, notably Barbara Hockaday as Bessy, the tragic mill worker, and Deirdre Davis, funny and flinty as Thornton’s good-hearted harridan of a mother.