ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017
It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett. To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels. The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?
Yes, of course it does.
Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly. The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece. Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.
Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life. Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant. He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money. Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we? Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine. Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines. Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man. Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.
Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella. Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth. Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments. She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu. Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending. She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing. I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!
In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal). Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.
Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously. Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love. Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth. Who will Anna choose? Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.
The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions. Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.
Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there. The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really. The drama is mostly condensed into the second half. Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves. And that’s no happy ending at all. For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…
Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic. With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.