English Touring Theatre’s visits to Malvern over the years have left fond memories of classic plays as different as Hamlet and French Without Tears.
But something has gone seriously adrift at ETT. Once a brand to be equated with meticulous, intelligent and craftsmanlike theatre, its standards have plunged disastrously.
Three years ago a move into literary adaptations with a so-so adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd seemed an ominous development. But if that was merely pedestrian, this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel by Tanika Gupta, which pointlessly relocates it to India, is a catastrophe. You can only wonder at what they can have been thinking.
The notion of a lower caste Indian boy being patronised by the memsahib Miss Havisham gives Gupta the opportunity for some crude and, you might have thought, rather redundant anti-colonial gestures.
But it’s not the sentiment which is the problem, so much as the banality of her writing.
At one point she actually has Pip say to Magwitch, the convict just revealed as his anonymous benefactor: “You and I have a lot of catching-up to do.”
The dialogue, which coarsens Dickens at every turn, dooms the enterprise from the start. But it is matched by Nikolai Foster’s slack direction, Colin Richmond’s muddled design and some terrible acting which swings from wooden to comically melodramatic.
A strange thing is that, having taken the trouble to move the story to India, the setting seems so half-hearted. The characters retain their original names (though Joe Gargery is now a cobbler rather than a blacksmith) and the accents are Northern English.
The impression is that we are not in India at all, but in some weird theatrical no-man’s land. Not the sort of place, in these days of swingeing cuts, where you would think any self-respecting theatre company would want to be found.
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes. Until Saturday.