Cold Comfort Farm
by Paul Doost
April 6th - 13th, 2002
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
In-house review by Colin Smith
Before retirement, Colin Smith was a BBC Radio producer specialising in poetry and drama for schools. For BBC Worldwide he edited and co-produced Noel Coward - An Autobiography, which was voted Best Production in the Spoken Words Awards 2001.
Stella Gibbons is rather an elusive figure, details of her career remaining vague; but our tenacious programme researchers have them sorted. It was the success of Cold Comfort Farm that enabled the author to write full-time. But she was already an established poet, pithy and serious :
A severed wasp yet drank the juice
Of a ripe pear.
And idly did one meditate,
What was the use?
Yet all about us, growing old
We see half-men, still scraping gold
Its uses gone.
Nor would she draw the line, one suspects, at today's global capitalists : the Country Sports brigade came in for it too.
Mrs Fand wore a fox
Around her wrinkled neck ...
Apart from Cold Comfort Gibbons' many novels seem unknown but one well-known humorist (was it Frank Muir?) said that in his old age he read little that was new but "re-read for the umpteenth time such imperishable treats as every novel by Stella Gibbons".
Poet and novelist was she, then, but a dramatist not. In his adaptation Paul Doust set about remedying the deficiiency by framing the plot through the extensive narration of Flora Poste, whose knowing prologue anticipates and also denigrates the forthcoming events.
This certainly adds an extra dimension but perhaps suggests a lack of confidence in the dramatic potential of the material. All dramatisations of novels suffer to some extent from the absence of the author's voice. Gibbons' humour is often couched in articulate, stylish language and can't be put into the mouths of gnarled rustics.
Rosalind Moore's confident Flora/Narrator had the necessary poise for this, but had to carry much early scene-setting and, subsequently, buttonholing of the audience. The initial presentation of the main characters is fragmented, and not until the arrival on the scene of Seth Starkadder is there any sustained dialogue.
Julie Dark's production began with well choreographed grouping: a large and dependable cast of individuals who also doubled various minor role. They firmly put aside such obvious temptation as Coarse Acting, and the Starkadder family led off wih restrained performances.
The echoes of Hardy, Lawrence and Emily Bronte (Aunt Ada as Mrs Rochester) were neatly done and not over-emphatic. But the script itself did not always avoid this: there was too much repetition of cod effects. Thunderclaps and splashes, fine in themselves in Simon Humphries' busy sound plot, inevitable palled after several hearings. To have someone remark that "someone ought to write Aunt Ada some new dialogue" at the nth repeat of "something nasty in the woodshed" doesn't do the trick.
The largely experienced cast gave a good sense of ensemble, sharing the action equally. Eileen Marner's Aunt Ada, Peter Westbury's tycoon, and Ian Recordon's hellfire preacher were some of the generally noteworthy performances.
Everyone rose to the task of creating credible, well-observed characters and there were many unobtrusive, distinguishing touches enhanced by Kay Perversi's inventive costumes and the responsive lighting of Simon Payne.
Rebeccca Winter's sturdy setting served the general, atmosphere effectively, though the presence of the farmhouse stove and kitchen clock during the ballroom sequence was surely avoidable. Changes in tone and mood during this sequence were neatly handled, and the dancing was convincing and relaxed: Tower audiences were won over by the prevailing good humour.