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Major play is well worth blowing one's trumpet over!



Review by David Munro

THE Trumpet Major, at the Bridewell Theatre, is based on one of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset novels.

Set in 1805, when the country was in fear of a Napoleonic invasion ,it deals with the love of a miller’s two sons for a girl, Anna (Emily Norman), the daughter of a widow, Mrs Garland (Jane Nash), tenants of the miller.

One son, John (David Birrell), is in the Army – the eponymous Trumpet Major - while his brother, Bob (James Hoare), is in the Navy.

The plot turns on which will win her and the waters are muddied when the local Squire’s nephew, Festus (Tobin Saunders), tries to win her for himself.

There is a woman of easy virtue, also gleefully played by Jane Nash, who tries to entrap Bob and the usual subplot of the squire’s nephew trying to anticipate his inheritance.

Not a very original scenario but where the originality comes in, is in the staging, and in the playing, of all the parts by a cast of seven actors.

The action is interspersed and moved along by A Cappella songs, beautifully sung, for the most part unaccompanied, by the company on a bare stage. Any props required are brought on and off, as required, and the whole atmosphere is that of a band of travelling players of the period.

It is one of the most enchanting evenings I have sat through in a long time. The very talented cast seem to people the stage with a cast of characters many times larger than their little troupe.

Each character is well defined, and it is a shock to realise that it is Michael Fenner who appears almost contemporaneously as the miserly, Scrooge-like Squire, and the down to earth, kindly miller, but it is.

The costume changes are brilliant and executed so swiftly and, in apparently no time at all, that it quite takes one’s breath away in admiration of the actor’s skill and expertise.

And not only in costume changes; as I have already said, the characters played are all as real as the plot will allow and one can empathise with them completely.

One knows that Anne will make the wrong choice and choose the unreliable Bob, in preference to his more reliable and worthwhile brother.

However, one still feels involved in the twists of her affections and sympathy for the luckless loser, all due to the strong performances of the characters given by Emily Norman, James Hoare and David Birell, respectively.

The sub-plot of Festus, and his aspirations for Anne and his uncle’s money, is in the very capable hands of Tobin Saunders.

His portrayal of a blustering, cowardly bully is a brilliant piece of comedy playing, especially as one realises that the character, as portrayed, can be found in many of the pubs in the area of the theatre, only now they are called lager louts, not gentlemen, as in Hardy’s time

Clearly, credit is also due to Michael Fry, the adaptor and director, whose stagecraft and expertise in filling the stage with imaginary crowds and processions is almost beyond praise.

Theatre, in the round, is not my favourite venue for an evening’s entertainment but, after last night, I begin to realise how effective it can be when it is under control of a man who knows how to handle it to its maximum advantage

It is clearly impossible to single out any particular performer, or moment in the play, when the whole evening has the high quality of excellence of this production.

My only criticism is that I felt the second act could be trimmed. The momentum set up in the first act slowed a bit, as the plot resolution approached.

That aside, I can truly take my hat off to Mr Fry and his talented troupe, and thank them for a memorable evening in the theatre.

The Trumpet Major, by Thomas Hardy, adapted by Michael Fry. Music by John White; Director, Michael Fry; Designer, Charles Cusick-Smith; Lighting, Graham McClusky.
CAST: Philip Benjamin; David Birell; Michael Fenner; Emily Norman; Jane Nash; Tobin Saunders.
Producer, Classic Reaction Company. Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, off Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 8EQ.
From Thursday, May 6 - Saturday, May 29, 2004. Evenings: Tues – Sun, 7.30pm; Matinee: Sun, 3pm. Box Office: 020 7936 3456

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