West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 16 July, 1997

Two years ago the first production by West Yorkshire Playhouse's Community Company, Pilgermann, was a visually striking but dramatically sprawling and erratic affair. Its director, Michael Birch, is also at the helm of the company's production of Vanity Fair, adapted by David Nobbs, and with similar results.

Simplicity and grandiosity jostle with one another onstage. The company dress entirely in white, donning only black waistcoats or skirts to signify the gender of the characters they play in a particular scene. Roles are as often as not cross-cast: the upright Amelia Sedley is played by a young man, both her husband George Osborne and her timid suitor William Dobbin by women. After her or his scene in Nobbs's episodic adaptation is over, the performer removes the garment and melts back into the larger company, which remains onstage throughout, playing extras, working as a mute chorus or engaging in atmospheric movement.

This is where life grows difficult for a reviewer. The programme provides a list of three dozen or so "Managers of the Performance", i.e. the company (they may or may not all be actual performers) and a list of some 50 specified characters from Thackeray's novel, but does not link the two. Presumably this is intended to emphasise the community aspect of the project there are to be no stars. However, since the same performers consistently play the same parts, it seems somewhat misguided. It would be helpful to know, for instance, whom to praise as the discreet, self-effacing Dobbin, whom to sniff at as an over-languid, wooden Jos Sedley, delivering all his lines at the same leaden pace and with the same lack of vibrancy, and whom to be non-committal about as the self-serving anti-heroine Becky Sharp, doing all required of her by the director but never quite bringing the character to life.

Birch has taken his lead from Thackeray's preface to the novel, in which he refers to his characters as puppets, dolls and other such toys. Huge objects are wheeled and flown on and offstage to symbolise particular characters: a six-foot-high bust for Becky, an enormous playing card for her husband Rawdon Crawley, a vast balloon with breasts for the Irishwoman Mrs O'Dowd, and so on. Sometimes attempts are made to make these items "interact", sometimes not; sometimes lines appear to be addressed to them rather than to the actors, sometimes not; sometimes things simply seem uncertain. However, it often feels as if Birch treats his actors equally as puppets: few performers imbue their characters with life, virtually all lines are over-articulated and pacing is uniformly sluggish.

Three hours of such an approach is a lot to take. The production is technically impressive and the company's collective commitment equally admirable, but Birch's direction consistently sells them short as individual actors.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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