Review: Leeds Art Centre’s Mill on The Floss at The Carriageworks

I have just paid my first visit to the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds to see Mill on the Floss, a play by Helen Edmundsen adapted from the novel by George Eliot.

Before I get on to the play itself I would just like to know who Leeds City Council had in mind when they constructed the place.  I am just under six feet tall, which is not very large by today’s standards but, like the Town Hall, the seating seems to have been designed for Ronnie Corbett and Danny DeVito.  After a couple of seconds, I realised that I would be in absolute agony within the next few minutes, so I had a word with the usher, who said that I was welcome to move to some freestanding chairs at the side.  As with the Town Hall a few weeks ago, the view wasn’t as good as from the sardine seats, but at least it meant that I could watch the play without the use of pain killers and would still have the ability to walk at the interval.  I am not alone here, literally, as I was joined in my corner by several others who had found the stalls unbearable.  Now that that is out of the way, I can move on to the production.

Mill on the Floss was presented by Leeds Arts Centre, an amateur theatre company which has been in existence since 1945.  The company covers everything from the classics to contemporary works, with Mill on The Floss falling somewhere between the two.

The book is about the conflict of loyalties experienced by a woman in the Victorian era, between her family and the man she loves, along with the pressure put on her to conform to the stereotype of the period.  I have not read the book so cannot make a comparison between it and the play, which means that I can write about the piece for what it was.   This turned out, as the football pundits would put it, to be a game of two halves, with the manager giving a tactical team talk at half-time.

The first half saw the development of the young Maggie Tulliver and her relationship with her family.  She was obviously a troubled girl, which was indicated by the occasional blank looks and loud background noise, but was protected by her father against others who couldn’t understand her behaviour.  This applied to her brother, Tom, whom she looked up to but who was controlling and manipulative.  It wasn’t until she was sent to boarding school with her cousin Lucy that she had a female in whom she could confide.  During this part of the performance the acting was at its weakest, with one of the main characters stumbling over their lines, and delivering them in such a  manner so as to overshadow any meaning or small flash of humour.

The character of Maggie was played by three different actresses to reflect the stages of her life, from girl, through adolescence, to womanhood.  It was very cleverly done, with the actors being on stage simultaneously at some points to show the way in which each of the periods influenced her decisions.  The first Maggie was played by Enya Lucas, who skipped her way around the stage and threw tantrums, at one point cutting her long hair off.  It was a bit odd seeing a grown woman behave in this way, but I soon got used to it.  It was at this time she met Philip Wakem, the son of her father’s arch enemy, with whom she falls in love.  He has a physical disability so they are drawn to each other as two ‘outcasts’ of the time.  Needless to say, this does not go down well with either her father or her brother.  This is where the conflict arises, in that Mr Wakem wins a lawsuit against Mr Tulliver, who is declared bankrupt as a result, thus losing the eponymous mill, and Maggie swears to her brother that she will never see Philip again.

We then went on to the more serious and sombre second Maggie, played by Sophie MacWhannel.  Maggie was wrestling with her identity and isolation, taking inspiration from a book she had been given, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis.  This advocates self-renunciation, thus shutting her away from the world.  After she meets Philip again, her inner conflict really kicks in: should she see him again or should she keep her word to her brother?

In the second half, we are introduced to the third Maggie (Olivia Richardson) who is now a woman and much more outgoing.  This leads to even more conflict when she goes to stay with Lucy and falls in love with her boyfriend, Stephen, when they meet at a ball.  Needless to say, things do not go well.

The second half was infinitely better.  I think that I can put that down to the fact that this portion of the play was mainly performed by the younger cast members, the aforementioned Maggies, Djo Fisher as Stephen, and Henry Petch, Philip.  I thought that Olivia Richardson’s portrayal of Maggie was the highlight of the evening and was by far the most polished of the night.

The set comprised two permanent plinths and an occasional third, smaller one, and the direction was somewhat frantic to fit in as many scenes as possible in an hour and a half, meaning that it was all very staccato.  The back projections were also odd, showing the outside of buildings when the action was inside.  I thought at first that this was to differentiate the locations, but then we had a scene in an inn where the interior was shown.  There was one clever part, when the actors portrayed trees in a forest when the photograph of bluebells faded to snow in the same spot to show the passing of time.  Very effective.

The lighting worked well. The sound was a bit over the top when accentuating Maggie’s mental strife, but it would have been good if the actors’ voices had been amplified, as I think that this might have avoided the shouty, monotone overacting by some of the cast.  Music was used to good effect throughout, except in one scene when we changed from traditional folk music style songs and melody to a soft rock number, complete with modern acoustic guitar, whilst everyone was still in Victorian costume.  Most bizarre.

I am glad that I went to see this play, despite my disappointment in several aspects of it, as it shows that there are talented actors coming through the ranks.  I will especially be keeping my eye on the career of Olivia Richardson, who I am sure will do great things.  Perhaps a three-hour play of such complexity was a step too far and I look forward to my next visit, when there might be something a little more suited to the company.  For now, I hope that the remaining performances go well and that there is no more trouble for anyone at t’mill.

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