Hotbuckle is the loveliest of our little theatre companies…and smart with it. They present exquisite productions of some of the nation’s favourite novels with a minimum of fuss and bother; charming full houses into romantic sighs and fits of respectable giggles….before packing everything away into a horsebox trailer, with the company’s logo stuck to the tail gate.
What comes out of the horsebox are four white flats, three period chairs, a handful of musical instruments, four very fine actors and a host of memorable caricatures.
At my second encounter with the company at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn last night, I felt a little like an endangered species. Sitting in the 250 seats were 235 women ( so just 15 men, then ) most of whom clearly knew the novel intimately. And what we got was Austen unplugged; performed with so much care and attention to detail the author herself would have been giggling too, as the team lovingly exhumed the story’s naturally arising humour. There was gentle mockery of the 18th century genre, but faithful respect for her commentary and comedy.
At the calm and collected centre of everything is Emily Lockwood, a beautifully poised, controlled actor with an excellent voice, a fine line in put downs and eyes that roll to the heavens one minute and wither you to a husk the next. She plays Ann Elliot as an eminently sentient and sensible woman who has lost the man she should love.
Her scenes with Peter Randall as the brusque, diffident Captain Wentworth – who loves her too but doesn’t have the vocabulary – are an absolute hoot of hopelessly restrained courtship. There were members of the audience who were completing Wentworth’s lines for him.
Newcomer Clare Harlow is a cheerful one-woman repertory company on her own, playing every other female part with just change of shawl or bonnet – and a complete transformation of character in a twinkling. Her mithering Mary is a delight to watch, simultaneously entertaining and irritating.
The company’s maestro Adrian Preater has the stage presence of a balding Tommy Cooper…he just has to stand there and look at the audience to get us going. His study of the socially climbing peacock, Sir Walter Elliot, is a finely judged parody. There were moments when he must have been reading both Austen’s novel and mind.
The four of them play and do everything…including a pretty fair representation of the English Channel. They come and go with the precision of a team of Maypole dancers; springing comic surprises and creating touching moments in an instant. The speed of change is all a bit breathtaking really and yet the air of 18th century grace remains. They simply know their stuff inside out and purvey it faultlessly.
I was completely captivated, again, and pathetically proud they should choose to make Shropshire their adopted abode. Which means there will be other opportunities to see them.
‘Persuasion’ is at the Severn Valley Country Park on June 19th and another Austen, ‘Emma’, premieres at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on October 9th. And there’s a very good chance they will available to our local village halls through Arts Alive in 2016. Meanwhile they are on ambassadorial duty … taking their talents around the country and putting Shropshire squarely on the theatrical map; bless ‘em. They produce perfect theatre with seemingly no effort at all.