The Allesley Silas, a performance based on the novel Silas Marner, was the choice for From the Heart Theatre as a contribution to the Coventry, City of Culture 2021 festivities. The stage was set for an entertaining evening celebrating the connection between the novelist George Eliot with Coventry. Much of Eliot’s work was based on the people and places she knew well, with her characters reflecting the people who lived in the Coventry area. From the Heart Theatre brought together the local community from Allesley and Allesley Park to retell the story of Silas Marner, the weaver of Raveloe, based on the Allesley area. Silas Marner has wonderful scenes of the local colourful characters, particularly in the Rainbow Inn, a public house that is still serving pints in the village today. Indeed the Rainbow pop-up bar on the site of the performance tent was happily selling refreshments to the audience. The weather was undecided for most of the run, with blankets required at some shows as the wind whistled its way through the open sides of the tent, no problem as all vestiges of coronavirus would struggle to survive! So it seemed particularly fitting that a rainbow, almost a double rainbow, should arc a blessing over the tent!
Accommodating such a huge Big Top space must have been daunting to the producers, but the large backdrop of drapes and the intriguing transparent framework denoting the weaver’s house took the eye to the stage. As the performance moved from the Red House, to Marner’s cottage, to the pub and other relevant places an illustrated roll unravelled from the suspended wire. A brilliant idea, if rather small and difficult to be seen from all angles, the notion of time and place was conveyed. What appears to be huge on the ground is diminished when hung from such a height.
As the show began the musicians and townsfolk peopled the stage and created a busy atmosphere, some of the dialogue lost because of the vastness of the space and the multiple angles to be covered, but the excitement and cheery feel of the village and the pub was clear. Beautiful music from some wonderful musicians on harp, flute, violin and others created a delightful musical accompaniment to the action which successfully filled the auditorium, combatting some of that vast space. The choral voices from all positions on and around the stage, including behind the seated audience, and amongst the breaks in the seating, captured the mood.
Other staging was used to good effect with attaching either bunting or ivy trails to poles, and producing flowers from the staging blocks at suitable moments. Marner using the staging to hide his gold and a rudimentary suggestion of a loom was effective too. Puppets were a feature of the show solving the problem of the growing child Eppie with two iterations of the girl skilfully operated by the adult Eppie played by Alex Allison. This was effective as was the horse, although only a head it was sufficient to illustrate the point, if a shame not to use it to describe the critical actions of Dunstan Cass. Dunsy, as referred to, was played by John Bennell, capturing the bullish nature of the rebellious son, however the timeframe appeared skewed when Bennell reappeared as another character. A shame for the distraction as the events of the fateful night are key to the narrative. Squire Cass was played by Marc Carey whose over the top rendition was perfect, his booming voice laying down the law and underlining the difficult relationships with his sons Godfrey and Dunsy. Pete Ashmore conveyed with conviction Godfrey Cass, compromised and tortured by secrets.
Silas Marner is a complicated character full of secrets and bewilderment, a stranger uncomfortable in an alien environment. Some versions of this character reveal the kindness and meekness present in the novel, but Adrian Decosta managed to tease out the afflicted Marner, with the fits and ticks Eliot uses in the novel illustrating the confusion. It was an interesting and competent interpretation.
The production successfully created the lively, joyful, bucolic atmosphere of village life with live music and dancing. The narrative galloped along as fast as Dunsy’s horse, however never feeling too rushed the important elements and relationships in the story were clear. A tricky task as the arc of the story is over a few years expertly negotiated by the writer Alan Pollock. A great adaptation that fitted the Coventry City of Culture bill perfectly, allowing a greater understanding and celebration of the genius of George Eliot, and the rich history of this particular part of the Midlands.