A fiddler plays the folk tunes of rustic 19th century Dorset as this classic tale opens on a simple set with timber beams indicating the farms and barns, the village hall and the workhouse that all have a part in this tale.
Many of a certain age will remember forever the stunning film made nearly 50 years ago of Hardy’s first successful Wessex novel, starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch.
It’s a tough act to follow, and it will be interesting to see whether the new film version can match it when it is screened for the first time next year.
The enduring memory of the 1967 film was the figure of the dashing scarlet-uniformed swordsman Sgt Frank Troy of the 11th Dragoons and the devastating impact he had on the lives of the farming community of rural Westbury.
He swept the feisty go-it-alone farmer Bathsheba Everdene off her feet, and left two admirers disappointed and desperate to win her back. And as for poor Fanny Robin, she really did need to get to the right church on time!
This amateur theatre company from Surrey captures the essence of simple country life with an entertaining cast of characters, but it cries out for more colour to lift the audience, especially when the village is celebrating the harvest and when wealthy neighbouring farmer Mr Boldwood hosts his special Christmas party.
The contrast between the good times and the bad needs emphasising, otherwise it feels too flat and unconvincing in this adaptation for the stage by Mark Healy.
That said, Lucy Baker as Bathsheba is both spirited and beautiful and the production directed by Jacquelyn Wynter is thoughtfully put together with designer Keith Orton, and super pigeon-cooing, owl-hooting, sheep-baa-ing sound effects by Mike Millsted and Tim Gooding.
Iain Brock is the fiddler, Robin Clark plays Gabriel Oak, Chris Semple is Sgt Troy, Steve Boxall is Farmer Boldwood and Hannah Millsted the ill-fated Fanny Robin.
The country folk are headed by Brian Miller with Helen Chisnall, Adam Cobby, Nigel and Avril Swift, Jonathan Hill, Samantha Elgar, Pamela Cuthill, Gail Bishop, Carolyn Burton, Berry Butler and Cas Frost, many of them doubling into other roles.
Overall, it is a sad tale, but we take comfort from Shepherd Oak’s assurance: “There I shall be . . . and there will be you.”