The Allesley Silas – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: George Eliot

Adaptor: Alan Pollock

Director: Olivia Marie

Mary Ann Evans spent much of her early life in Warwickshire and Coventry. Under the pen name of George Eliot, she wrote five novels including Silas Marner, published in 1861. This book is largely set in the fictitious village of Raveloe, which is based, at least in part, on the village of Allesley, now part of Coventry but retaining the feel of a small village.

At its heart, Silas Marner is about community so it was appropriate that a production of Silas Marner with a strong community presence be produced as part of Coventry’s tenure as UK City of Culture; and so it was, with an open-air production of The Allesley Silas first presented last year, with a community presence made up of people who were born or live, in, or close to, Allesley. It has now been slightly reimagined for the Belgrade’s B2 studio space.

Silas Marner is a master weaver from the north of England. He’s falsely accused of theft and leaves to go south, settling in Raveloe. Disenchanted with the world, he lives alone as a hermit and miser, seemingly loving only his gold. When his gold is stolen, he is distraught but the villagers rally round to help. Then, one New Year’s Eve, a two-year-old orphan girl finds her way into Marner’s home. Eppy, as he calls her, changes his life as he cares for her as she grows into a beautiful young lady and Marner’s rehabilitation seems complete. Meanwhile, the squire’s ne’er-do-well younger son, Dunsy, has disappeared and his older son, Godfrey, seems strangely reluctant to court local girl, Nancy. But secrets eat away at us and ultimately come home to roost.

While The Allesley Silas is not a musical as such, there is plenty of music in the soundscape created by composer Rebecca Applin, including violin, flute and harp as well as singing from the cast – singing that is sometimes low and that reinforces our sense of mood and place – when we’re in the north, the sounds almost subliminally suggest the sound of industrial machinery. Abby Clarke’s set is simple, with a framework serving as Marner’s home housing his loom. The rest of the space is swiftly transformed into various locations – The Red House, or outdoors. All this allows the narrative to flow under the directorial hand of Olivia Marie, reflecting the steady heartbeat of village life.

Adrian Decosta is terrific as Silas. Taciturn, he nevertheless shows Silas’ feelings from moment to moment through his physicality, facial expressions and occasional tics. His Marner moves from a louring, shambling presence to a loving and valued member of the community. Alex Allison is charming as Eppie – initially operating a puppet toddler – with a childlike innocence in her uncomplicated love for Marner and an assurance as she later deals with her biological father. John Bennell positively revels in playing the slippery Dunsy, endowing him with believable selfishness and lack of morals. Nicholas Goode is doubly impressive – as well as playing the somewhat stitched-up Godfrey, he plays a lively violin too, often providing the foundation for the music. Godfrey’s developing relationship with Amy Kakoura’s Nancy is deftly shown, ultimately leading to their marriage. Their later sadness – and distance – generated by their childlessness is well painted.

Holding the whole together is our narrator, Jill Dowse. She provides links and insights without impacting the pace. Supporting the main cast and generating atmosphere is the capable community cast.

The Allesley Silas is an ultimately uplifting story of the toxicity of keeping secrets and the potential of redemption we all share, a well-told story that is well worth catching.

Runs Until 30 July 2022

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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