I have always loved going to the theatre because it’s like stepping into a tardis and within five minutes of sitting down to watch Candleford at the Finborough Theatre I had swapped grim Earl’s Court for the bucolic idyll of rural Oxfordshire in the late 1890s.
Set at the turn of the 19th century, Candleford gives you a glorious insight into the bygone England of yesteryear, just as the modern world begins to encroach upon this sleepy fictional village and irrevocably alters its simple traditions and rugged characters forever.
Taken from the autobiographical trilogy Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, Candleford was adapted by Keith Dewhurst into a promenade piece, for his then fledgling company and was first performed in 1978 at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. And more than 25 years on, the solid direction of John Terry and Mike Bartlett has brought forth a truly excellent production, which is playing at the Finborough in rep with its companion piece Larkrise. As they are self-contained, the two plays can be seen in any order, separately or together.
The action, such as it is, focuses on the naive 14-year-old Flora, played by Sophie Trott, who has come to Candleford to be an assistant to the post-mistress Dorcas Lane, played by an officious Rosalind Cressy and it is through a gaze similar to Flora’s wide-eyed wonderment that the audience watch villagers exchange views and bicker as one year folds into the next and Laura finds her place in this adult and changing world.
Everything about this production reveals a real labour of love. Alex Marker’s wooden set, with its ladders and mezzanines, is a stunning bit of craftsmanship as is the ingenuity behind strapping pots and pans to the actors’ shoes to mimic the sound of horse hooves during a hunt not to mention using skin exfoliators as snowball substitutes. Tim van Eyken must also be applauded for harnessing all the casts’ vocal and musical talents in each of the folk ballads that pepper this production.
As this is a promenade piece there is no formalised seating so you are shunted from wherever you happen to be perching by actor after actor as the scenes change, until you too feel wholly caught up in the thrust and flux of life in this small hamlet.
A drive for authenticity lies at the heart of this production meaning that for meal times the curmudgeonly house keeper, Zillah, played expertly by Susie Emmett, serves up real stew and at men’s bath time the two impoverished farm hands Bill and Bavour played by the lithe Peter Caulfield and Michael Lovatt do actually clamber into the baths wearing nothing more than a happy smile.
Quite simply Candleford is a delightful production that shines light on a kind of quintessential English village life that has almost been erased from our national conscious and succeeds in leaving you with pangs of nostalgia and the urge to catch the next train out of the city and head for the rolling hills of Oxfordshire.