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A CurtainUpLondon London Review
Gone to Earth

Whenever I see precious things I just want to break them.
--- Jack Reddin
Gone to Earth
Simon Wilson (Edward Marston), James Stabbon (Mrs James), Natalia Tena (Hazel Woodus), Paul Parris (John).
(Photo: Robert Day)
Shared Experience really are a company to be reckoned with. They just seem to go from strength to strength and their new show Gone to Earth is no exception. The company's reputation for boldly physical work and strong story telling precedes them; the audience at the Lyric were clearly waiting with high expectations - there was an almost palpable feeling of anticipation - and they were not let down.

An adaptation of Mary Webb's 1917 novel, Gone to Earth tells the story of Hazel Woodus (Natalia Tena), a seventeen year old girl who has been brought up by her father in rural farmland, free from all constraints. Hazel has an affinity with nature, she cannot tolerate cruelty to animals and cries at the mere suggestion that in stepping on a ladybird, she may have bereft a ladybird family of its mother. Into her simple world come two men. The new parson, Edward Marston (Simon Wilson) and the squire, Jack Reddin (Jay Villiers). Hazel finds, to her astonishment, that she is the object of their desire and she gradually finds herself torn between the caring and stable relationship she has for Edward and the lust and inexplicable draw she has towards Jack.

Helen Edmundson, who adapted the book, has worked extensively with Shared Experience, scripting their productions of Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss. In Gone to Earth there is a strong injection of much needed humour. The story naturally tends towards melodrama and there are a couple of moments when it veers dangerously close to it, but in general the humour successfully undercuts any potential hysteria.

Nancy Meckler also adds her own touches of comedy in her direction which serve to lighten the oppressive mood which she so successfully creates. I had read before going into the theatre that the company had drafted in a chorus of clog dancers and it was with a degree of trepidation that I waited to see what part they would play. Of course, I should not have doubted. Their rhythmic tapping, starting slowly and building to a frenzied climax underlines the dangerous and frantic themes of lust and the increasing sense of imprisonment. For much of the play they sit silently at the back, watching the actions, like sinister prison wardens. This sense of entrapment is perfectly captured through Niki Turner's set. The entire stage is encased in a steel cage which the cast clamber over like animals. At times it seems barely visible and the cast slip quietly between the bars but when Jack shuts the cage door, Hazel's sense of panic is almost tangible.

The cast are fantastic and it really does feel like a piece of teamwork. But the star of the night has to be Natalia Tena playing Hazel. She was only 17 and fresh out of school when she took the part but she shows an astonishing maturity. She is completely physically uninhibited and throws herself with abandon into the part. Her body movements are wild and unrestrained but never feel uncontrolled and she brings a comic naivety to Hazel where she could have been merely irritating.

The play is not without its faults. It feels very long and there are moments when the wailing and tearing of hair feel pretty relentless. But these are minor quibbles and I have to concede that Shared Experience have done it again - Gone to Earth is engrossing, funny, innovative and visually stunning.

Gone to Earth
Written by Mary Webb
Adapted by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Nancy Meckler

With: Amelda Brown, Michelle Butterly, Paul Parris, Roderick Smith, James Staddon, Natalia Tena, Jay Villiers, Simon Wilson and Fiona Clifton-Welker
Designer: Niki Turner
Lighting Designer: Jonathan Clark
Music: Olly Fox
Movement: Liz Ranken
Sound: Carolyn Downing
Running time: 2hrs 45 mins with 20 min interval
Box Office: 08700 500 511
Booking to 5th June 2004
Reviewed by Katherine Lawson based on 12th May 2004 Performance at the Lyric Theatre, King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 (Tube Station: Hammersmith)
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