Arriving at the Mercury Theatre in a bit of a rush, courtesy of Colchester’s Ipswich Road roadworks, I encountered an enthusiastic viola player, Hanna Khogali, playing her tunes in the aisle next to my seat whilst the rest of the ensemble accompanied her from the stage. No, I wasn’t that late, the house lights were still up, and this was all part of the mood setting, pre-show warm up. Thus, was I immediately immersed in eighteenth century London street life complete with bawdy songs about satisfying young ladies.
The original title of the novel on which this production is based is: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. As Mr Foe would say – a few spoilers in there!
If you were hoping for any historical clarification in Nick Perry’s unfaithful adaptation of the aforementioned Moll Flanders, you are to be disappointed. The mashup that unfolds as the house lights go down could never be described as ‘faithful’ to the original but, frankly, who cares?
As Mr Foe, sorry deFoe, began his narration there was a moment when I feared we might descend into an early panto performance. But no, this is serious theatre, employing all the tricks of live entertainment to engage its audience. Something it achieved admirably, from the less than subtle toilet of Ms Flanders to the ridiculous Kato-esque nutter in Newgate prison. And there was music and song as well.
Of the cast, only two actors remained in one role throughout. Bill Champion as Daniel Defoe deserves credit for enunciating the full title of his book without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Eva-Jane Willis as Moll was also ever present – both vertically and horizontal. The rest of the cast changed character by subtle changes of costume – those bearded young ladies were a tad borderline – or burst into song when someone turned up with a guitar or fiddle. Many had solo performances – Motherless Child, Fever… all sung to perfection, oh and that haunting bass line….
I cannot conclude without mentioning the set. The incredible detail could have easily distracted from the action but the lighting engineers ensured you were focused on the subject by subtle use of spots and back-lighting. The set morphed from Newgate Gaol to Dafoe’s office to a transportation ship to plantation swamp effortlessly.
This Made in Colchester production is the latest to prove if proof were needed, that not all the nation’s theatrical talent lies in the West End. Regional theatre is alive and flourishing in Essex.