Casterbridge: The Life (and Death) of a Woman of Character – Camden Fringe, Hen and Chickens Theatre

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Dorothy McDowell

Based on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Not The Way Forward’s new production begins confusingly. Some sort of auction is taking place, but the storytelling is not clear. What – or whom – is being sold is not completely obvious. And how could this happen in the 1980s? Unfortunately, over the next hour Casterbridge remains confusing.

Hardy is not usually thought of as one of the Victorian Sensation writers whose books were full of intrigue, cliff-hangers, bigamous marriages and illicit sexual desires, but his never-read first published novel, Desperate Remedies, is patently influenced by the literary genre. However, after watching Casterbridge it’s hard not to see its preposterous narrative of secret sons and secret mothers and secret letters and secret wills as pure Sensation.

But rather than leaving it in the 19th century, Not The Way Forward has updated it and placed the story in the noughties with the two main protagonists now hedge fund bankers. Michael Henchard is now Mary, and has a bitter rivalry with Devra Frafrae in both love and business. The rest of the plot is too silly and complicated to explain, its outlandishness heightened by the introduction of mobile phones, tabloid exclusives and scenes set on the central reservation of the M1.

With such a ridiculous story, you’d think the cast would have some fun with it. But instead of camping it up or framing the play in knowing irony, the four actors play it relatively straight, despite Lorelei Piper’s occasional asides to the audience. Only Leah O’Grady when she is playing the cad Luke Le Sueur seems to be having any fun. The rest of the cast struggles with the tone.

It’s hard to know what could fix this, but ultimately the play and its source material are the problems here, It’s high time we had a Hardy revival, but this effort won’t be be kick-starting it.

Runs until 15 August 2022

The Camden Fringe runs from 1-28 August 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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