Ginger Hibiscus | Tess of the d’Urbervilles Review
London theatre West End News reviews
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Tess of the d’Urbervilles

at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre

When Tess Durbeyfield, daughter to a rural family of peasants in 19th century Wessex, is proposed to by local gentleman Angel, she hesitates. She hesitates despite him being attractive, despite him being wealthier than her, despite him loving her. And despite her loving him in return.

This musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic English novel, breathes life into Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a text that (before reading it) many dump in the, “that’s an old book, it’s probably really boring and full of tricky lingo,” pile. This production proves that on stage, it’s nothing of the sort. Brothers Alex (Director) and Chris Loveless (Composer) do a phenomenal job of telling us Tess’ story, moving between events (so many events) at a fiesty trot, fast enough to be thoroughly engaging without losing us somewhere along the way.

Tess, played excellently by Jessica Daley, hesitates at the proposal because she knows she’s not what Angel, or any man, expects in a bride. A younger Tess was preyed on by a man who took advantage of her youthful naiveté, stole her virginity and left her eternally his victim. Considered dirty, Victorian society thrusts blame onto her, an, “improper,” woman, inappropriate for marriage. A devastating situation, her ordeal is yet incomplete.

A folk-infused score with foot-stomping country dance

As Hardy, author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, said, Tess is a pure woman who’s a victim of her circumstances. And that comes through in every single syllable from Daley. As Tess, Daley is earthy and wholesome, earnest and ultimately, believable. She becomes a heroine that the audience can truly, unequivocally empathise with, and unusually for a musical, I felt that if I were her, I would have made very similar decisions.

For every heroine we need a villain, and in Tess of the d’Urbervilles we get two for the price of one. The cruel Alec is the epitome of, a “villain,” with zero redeeming features. Played by the outstanding Martin Neely, he’s imperious and patronising, fully conscious of his behaviour as he declares Tess the “Forbidden Fruit” in a brilliantly sinister duet. Whilst both men are clearly attracted to Tess, Angel (Nick Hayes) contrasts starkly with Alec; conventionally handsome, alluring, yet something of a dreamer, Angel is unwilling to accept Tess as a physical being who lived before meeting him, preferring to think of her as an ethereal presence. Gorgeously idealistic, but fundamentally dangerous for them both. As Angel, Hayes pitches his performance perfectly, confident and strong, with a thrilling on-stage chemistry with Daley exposed in their series of duets.

The show reaches it’s climax with a phenomenal ensemble performance. Clearly practiced to perfection, it’s a special moment that triggers a whole cascade of emotions, tumbling over one another like rocks in an avalanche, gaining momentum. The multi-talented ensemble join the avalanche, adding to it’s potency not just with their singing, but through their musicianship, playing a veritable orchestra of instruments live on stage. This relatively unusual element is such a treat, giving the whole show a thoroughly rustic feel, with the folk-infused score and foot-stomping country dance.

Whilst technically strong, at times the balance between the on and off stage musicians doesn’t feel quite right, with the keyboard overpowering the other instruments. Some of the more minor harmonies could do with a little bit of work, and I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of the superb Guy Hughes. But these feel like such small details in the context of the whole show.

In all, the production could use a smidge of spit and polish, but I feel like this is something incredibly special. A heavyweight novel married to a heavyweight score, producing a show that’s potently powerful.

For tickets and information:

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.

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