Parochial Dibley? No, No, No, Yes
On Saturday 31st October I had the pleasure of seeing the Woolgatherers’ presentation of The Vicar of Dibley, adapted for stage by Ian Gower and Paul Carpenter. When I entered Heswall Hall, my first impression was that the ‘sell out’ audience were full of anticipation of a good night’s entertainment.
The Vicar of Dibley is an iconic BBC sitcom written by Richard Curtis for Dawn French in the title role and audience expectations were undoubtedly high. They were not to be disappointed. If you are familiar with the smash hit TV serial, you will know that the scene is set when a new female Vicar arrives in Dibley, following the death of the old incumbent. She is immediately met with hostility from the Parish Council Chairman, David Horton, who wanted, and expected, a male vicar: “Instead you got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom!” declares the Rev. Geraldine Grainger, which sets the tone for the rest of this very funny play.
Bringing a TV show to the stage is complex and not without its problems, not least of which is the transition of some 25 plus scenes, whilst simultaneously denoting the passage of time. All credit to Jenny Stock and her stage management team, for seamlessly managing this without the play losing its pace. The transitions were as smooth as the restrictions of the stage would allow, with the passage of time conveyed by a simple change of an “Attention Grabber” affixed to the side of the Proscenium Arch, lit for a few seconds during each of the stage blackouts. This was a clever device used by Director, Lynette Clement.
The set itself was minimal split into two, enabling continuous action between the 2 locations. There was clear delineation between the stark community village hall and the contrasting soft furnishings and comfort of the vicarage. I did find the positioning of the Vicarage kitchen a little confusing and felt that it might have worked better off. Several scenes require characters to be off stage, in order to advance the plot. The script provides motivation for an actor to exit with Geraldine requesting cups of tea. Unfortunately, whilst the actor would exit to make tea, the kitchen was situated on stage in full view. However, this was merely a distraction and in no way prevented my enjoyment of the production.
Any TV show creates characters that we all feel we know so well in characteristics, individual peculiarities and look. Mary, Danny, Dawn and Sue, responsible for wardrobe should be congratulated on their attention to detail. Every character was instantly recognisable from their hair, costumes and makeup, fulfilling our belief we were amongst the original characters. As the play moved forward so did the characterisations from each of the actors. David Oliver took on the difficult task of playing the pompous Parish Council chairman, David Horton. This he did with great skill creating a rude and bombastic privileged chairman, and father to son Hugo Horton, played so well by Elliot Kinnear. I look forward to seeing more from this young actor in future Woolgatherer’s productions. He blundered his way through life dominated by his father and unable to admit his obvious love for Verger Alice Tinker, played by Cheryl Williams. From her first entrance, we were captivated by her presence. She was undeniably Alice from accent, comic timing and all those nuances we know so well from the TV series. Who will ever forget her superb delivery of the “I can’t believe it’s not butter” sketch?, which she delivered flawlessly.
Perhaps one the most difficult characters to develop is that of the Vicar, specifically written for Dawn French. Tracy Jane Lambert rose to the challenge and portrayed this character with confidence. From her entrance as the new Vicar, she not only had the look of Dawn French, but was instantly recognisable as Geraldine Granger, the chocoholic, down to earth, modern vicar. Throughout her performance, her character grew in strength and she developed warmth of personality, embracing the audience and endearing the previously sceptical Dibley parishioners. This enabled her to give some real comic moments especially when showing frustration with the dysfunctional villagers and her pseudo assertiveness when dealing with the advances of Owen Newitt (Graham Smith) the local bachelor farmer. Graham brought his character to life with brilliant comic timing and mannerisms, and for me, just got better as the show gained pace. Despite his rough looks and depravity, there was still an underlying ‘Je ne sais quoi’ that enabled Graham to bring out a vulnerable quality that made him almost likeable.
Perhaps one of the best known catch phrases from the TV series is that of Jim Trott’s character – “No, no, no, yes”, Ian Copestake captured our delight with his timing and impeccable delivery. He adopted all the mannerisms we have grown to love and delivered a very polished and highly believable Jim Trott.
I was particularly delighted by Terry Collister’s characterisation of Frank Pickle, the pedantic parish council secretary. He captured the voice to sound like the original Frank and his comic timing was faultless, bringing to life this very difficult character. Then there was Letitia Cropley played by Anne Condon. Unlike her marmalade and anchovy sandwiches and a myriad of other culinary firsts, we loved her eccentric and memorable character.
Credit must also be given to Nigel Cooper and Sea Rainey for their technical wizardry with light and sound. All the sound effects were realistic and seemed to originate from the appropriate stage or off position, whilst the music for the scene changes was appropriate and at times added to the comedy. The lighting plot was convincing. There was very little spillage into the areas of stage that needed to remain in blackout, ensuring our focus remained solely on the action within play.
Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes was that in the church, partly played in front of the main tabs. The wedding party, approached the church steps from the back of the auditorium, progressing up the aisle and interacting with members of the audience, which brought the whole scene to life and captivated our attention. I don’t think I will ever forget the talent of Helen Brickwood and Lizzy Keefe as the hilarious Telletubbies, dancing with Alice through the auditorium. This was inspired directing from Lynette and was superbly played out by her cast. Of course, during this action, a scene change had taken place on stage, and when the main tabs went back, we were inside the church, in front of the most magnificent stained glass window, created by Lyn Critchley who also played the woman who comes into the church to protest that the groom is already married and then exits with the superb line of, “Oops! Wrong church!” It is obviously not the size that counts, this small part was a crowd pleaser and Lyn played it perfectly.
Praise indeed must be given for the staging of the wedding vows. Disbelief was willingly suspended and regardless of the hilarity which had preceded, Lynette approached the ceremony with sensitivity. It was beautifully staged so that we were in no doubt that Alice and Hugo were devoted and absolutely in love. It would have been so easy to turn the wedding service into a pastiche or even pantomime, but Lynette resisted and should be congratulated for her vision in creating a scene that captured the warmth and radiance of a real wedding and bringing all her characters alive.
Overall The Vicar of Dibley is an ensemble piece and it it is essential that cast and crew work well together as a team and here, Lynette had pulled together an energetic company, all of whom worked with each other to deliver the best possible production. Props were convincing, wardrobe changes were timely and the cast played off each of their feeds to ensure the pace never dropped. This was a brave play to take on, but it was executed extremely well and met with enthusiasm by audiences. Well done to the Woolgathers for another successful production and I look forward to seeing The Constant Wife in February, 2016.