Writer: Catherine Cookson
Adaptor: Paul Dunn
Music: Mike Redway
Director: Leah Bell
Catherine Cookson’s novels have been massively popular for decades both nationally and internationally, as have their many adaptations on both stage and screen. The Cinder Path was first published in 1972, with a TV version starring Catherine Zeta-Jones airing in 1994, and now it takes to the stage with this production that continues to tour the UK at least until the end of this month.
Set between 1908 and 1918, the story follows Charlie McFell (James de Lauch Hay) an educated young man who inherits a farm after his abusive father’s unfortunate death, the circumstances of which he decides to cover up to keep a friend from the hangman’s noose. Unfortunately the accidental murder was witnessed by farmhand Ginger Slater (Coronation Street’s Nick Cochrane) who takes out a vendetta against Charlie that will lead to tragic results. To further complicate things, Charlie has four women in his life: Betty, his strong-willed sister (Viktoria Kay, )Polly, a childhood friend and unrequited love (Maria May Thompson), Victoria, his fiancé and later unfaithful wife (Bethan Amber) and Nellie, Victoria’s sister who has always loved him (Eleanor Chaganris). And then on top of all of that, World War One breaks out.
Like many of Cookson’s stories, this is a relatively simple tale with a lot of complications thrown in the way of the protagonists. This adaptation ambitiously seems to want to include as many of the comings and goings as possible, and mostly succeeds thanks to a simple, catch-all set that is enhanced with slickly positioned furniture and a large projection screen at the rear of the stage. However the adaptation may be a little too faithful to the book with some of the dialogue feeling somewhat stilted or clunky when delivered by actors on a stage – although they certainly do their best and mostly manage to sell it. Particular mention must go to de Lauch Hay whose wimpy farmer’s son has a believable arc as he turns into a charismatic officer, as well as Cochrane who adds depth to what could have easily been a one-dimensional villianous role, and Chaganris’ delightfully bubbly turn as Nellie. The absolute star of the show though is the director herself: Leah Bell. Taking on a few small roles, Bell shines bright in every scene she appears in with an astute comic timing and a massive presence despite her diminutive stature. She even allows herself a few self-indulgent scenes where she addresses the audience with an almost stand-up routine – something that would be an unwelcome interruption in normal circumstances, but here Bell makes it a sheer delight.
Billed as a musical, this is more like a play with a few songs, which are written by Mike Redway and are largely unnecessary and repetitive although they are nicely delivered especially by Thompson and Chaganris. Redway’s instrumental score however does add greatly to the drama, particularly in the hands of the multi-talented (and uncredited) musician who plays piano, accordion, drums and clarinet with great sensitivity to the emotional dynamics of the scene, transferring them through whichever instrument he is playing at the time. In contrast the pre-recorded synthesised tracks that are dotted throughout the show are unfortunately intrusive and unfitting.
Although it is impressive and constantly features excellent imagery that match the settings perfectly, the projection screen causes an unfortunate, unwanted effect in this production. Since it is a rear-projection screen, it creates a large back-lit area across most of the stage, thus resulting in the performers more often than not being silhouetted against it. This is a real shame as it also minimises the amount of facial expression that the audience can make out, reducing the dramatic impact in the process.
After the bows, Bell steps forward and admits that although Cookson’s books are great, they do tend to be a little depressing. To combat this, the audience are led by Bell in a sing along of the Geordie anthem The Blaydon Races and an extremely happy and entertained audience dance off into the night.
Currently on Tour