In A Nutshell
A rich, dramatic, and inventive score, but a show that is far too long for its own good.
Based on Thomas Hardy’s romantic melodrama, we see farm-girl Tess’ life turned upside down when her family learn that they’re the surviving heirs to an ancient aristocratic lineage. But her attempts to re-affiliate their family to the bloodline only ends in heartbreak and violence, causing Tess’ world to crumble around her in tragedy most bleak.
Award winning musical playwright, Alex Loveless, makes an incredibly comprehensive attempt at adapting Hardy’s celebrated novel into a musical. Indeed, there is very little, if anything, that is missing from the book in the musical. But whilst this is an incredibly worthy effort to stay as true to the original novel as possible, it also is the show’s major downfall as Alex Loveless’ work is a stark reminder at how complex and lengthy the original novel is. Given the story’s heavy emphasis on melodrama and tragedy, at over 2.5 hours long (including interval) – with Act I an epic 80 minutes long – it’s very difficult to stay engaged, even with such a solid score behind the production.
Not helping is that important plot points feel a bit rattled through whilst minor aspects of the story are dwelt upon for longer than needed. For example, Tess’ first meeting with Angel, accompanied by a wonderfully lilting romantic song, ‘I Saw Your Face’, feels disappointingly truncated, whereas later on we get almost a full four minutes of the ensemble singing about milking cows. There are more than a handful of moments and musical numbers that could have easily have been axed to speed the show along and make it more digestable. But instead, the audience are left to become fatigued for want of trying to stay focused, being made to sit through a truly mammoth amount of material.
Music & Lyrics
Score and songs is certainly Alex Loveless’ strong point. Having already picked up several awards for his work, including the Howard Goodall Award for composition, it’s no surprise that his score here is as solid here as elsewhere. For starters, Alex Loveless is not afraid to experiment a little, giving Tess of the d’Urbervilles a unique and inventive sound that marks it out from other new musicals. Here, Alex Loveless really embraces not just a modern musical style, but also the sounds, harmonies, and rhythms of English folk and pastoral music. Behind these he also puts behind a lot of thought and emotion, resulting in such stirring numbers like ‘Children of the Earth’ and ‘Joyfully, We Praise’, to soaring and rich numbers like ‘I Hear Your Voice’.
But not everything Alex Loveless writes works though. There are several weaker numbers such as ‘Saturday Night’ that is just too unwieldy and messy to be entertaining, and ‘The Belly of the Beast’ that is just a bit too unorthodox making it stick out like a sore thumb as it doesn’t gel with the timbre of the rest of the score.
Lyrically, whilst Alex Loveless doesn’t emulate the arch-poetry of Hardy’s style, he does bring an own sense of wit and creativity to the libretto that really compliment and augment the emotions he’s encapsulating in his music. There are more than a few unique and attention grabbing songs that demonstrate that Alex Loveless’ reputation is by no means one garnered from false praise.
Direction and Production
The production behind the show is also of a high standard and is as impressive as the new musical writing on offer here. David Shields stage design does a good job of portraying several of the abstract themes. His dilapidated arches, with peeling wood panelling and painted with drab pastoral scenes, very handsomely represent the ideas of a waning aristocracy and nature being unforgiving and harsh, not to mention easily conjuring up Stonehenge: where the novel’s climax takes place.
Director Chris Loveless also makes great use of the space. Particularly in capitalising on the nooks and crannies among Shield’s flats, meaning that actors end up being framed dramatically, appear, disappear, or be hidden with ease. Working closely with Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford, there are also bits of choreography and physical theatre that really add energy and slick showmanship to parts of the show. It’s just a shame that these excellent production values can’t stop the show from labouring.
Kudos to Casting Director Benjamin Newsome for finding a cast that can also play a plethora of instruments on stage without sacrificing acting ability. It’s really great to find such multi-talented performers, and make full use of their many skills. Particularly, Emma Harrold, Sarah Kate Howarth, and Jessica Millward are a trio of ladies who not only interact and bounce high-spirits and impish energy off each other, they work just as close-knit and refined an ensemble on violin, flute, and viola respectively.
However, Jess Daley in the titular role really steals the show. She’s astonishing at being the heartbroken heroine, balancing out devastating misery with a wonderful sense of romantic hope and feminine tenacity. You really feel the inner pain and turmoil that is written clear across her face, and even if you find yourself flagging because of the length of the show, it’s still easy to get lost in her the beautifully tragic portrayal of Tess.
Certainly worth a look if you’re a hardy Hardy fan, or keen on supporting some really great new British musical writing. Whilst the score is rich, vibrant, and original, be prepared for a show as long as the book is thick![youtube http://youtu.be/uTKh3pLmZ_U]
Tess of the d’Urbervilles plays at the New Wimbledon Studio, London, SW19 1QG, until 27 September 2014. Tickets are £15.40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.atgtickets.com.