Arts: How to milk Tess's dairy scene

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Savoy, London Family Viewing King's Head, London
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The Independent Culture
Anyone who has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles will know that a musical version is hardly Hardy. And Karen Louise Hebden's adaptation of the tragic novel will not disappoint any masochistic sceptics willing to part with up to pounds 32.50. But Hebden, who also directs the large-scale show, has aimed it at people who haven't read the novel. And if any of them are inspired to spend a few quid on the paperback after seeing this mangled precis, they're in for a shock - and a much more fulfilling experience.

Hebden opens her version as Tess - with thick black hair, creamy bodice and rustic skirt - arrives at Talbothay's dairy. The Disneyfication of the scene is such that when she sits down next to Angel Clare on a grassy, flowery mound, you expect the seven dwarfs to skip on in cheeky pursuit. Instead, the new lovers' movements are monitored by a trio of jaunty milk- maids, whose high-pitched, discordant songs of unrequited love bear a disturbing similarity to the squeaky mice in the film Babe. It's all impossibly twee.

In the novel, the dairy idyll is all the more precious because Tess had been through so much misery and mistreatment. Hebden instead interrupts her sun-kissed sanctuary with melodramatic flashbacks of the younger Tess (Maxine Fone) being sent away from her family and into the clutches of Alec D'Urberville (a cape-swishing, devilish Alasdair Harvey). But when Tess confesses her "shame" to Angel, the long, sensationalist re-enactment of seduction, rape and a dead baby undermines - through its delay - the hypocritical injustice of her wedding-night rejection.

But there are also structural problems in the second half, with the chronological story reduced to a series of snapshots. And the novel's swift conclusion makes for a flawed theatrical finale: Tess (Poppy Tierney, who alternates with Philippa Healey in the demanding lead role) kills Alec at the seaside, then finds Angel amid a crowd of monochrome promenaders. From there it's just a few steps to a mock-up of Stonehenge, where Angel reveals a woeful sense of direction by singing "we must find a port" before the police arrive.

All of the adaptation's narrative deficiencies are exacerbated by the through-sung style. Stephen Edwards's music has some grand, imposing moments, but is otherwise unmemorable, and Justin Fleming's prosaic lyrics leave the cast little scope for emotional depth. One of Tess's first songs is called "Who's Spinning the Wheel?" but, for Fleming, this isn't enough of an indicator of Hardy's obsession with fate. So, in successive lines, Tess sings of "destiny", how "what befalls is meant to be", and the "outcome is controlled by stars". The future is "mapped out"; there are "foretold plans" thrown in. Such mundane wordiness demands that the cast gulp in huge mouthfuls of air before racing to the end of each line. And it's only in a contrived, semi-operatic trio that Tierney, Harvey and Robert Irons (standing in for an indisposed Jonathan Monks as Angel Clare) get a chance to combine vocal power with meaningful passion.

Trevor Baxter's Family Viewing is a satire on TV game shows. But it's so badly conceived that two hours spent analysing Saturday-night telly would be more instructive. And it would certainly be a lot more fun. Reece Dinsdale is on the mark as a fast-talking, slimy compere, but has to spend the first half conducting one-way conversations down a phone. The rest of the cast are forced to do likewise - or, as a variation, to chat to imaginary companions - and Ann Bryson, Philip Bird and former Coronation Street heart-throb Matthew Marsden do the best they can within the limitations of barely credible characters and poor writing.

When they all come together on Dinsdale's "mega-bigger-better" game show for the millennium, Baxter loses sight of his satirical target entirely. But other targets start appearing with disturbing frequency, with tasteless jokes at the expense of disabled people and gays. They may be delivered by a reprehensible character, but, inexcusably, Baxter's written them for laughs.

`Tess of the D'Urbervilles': Savoy, WC2 (0171 836 8888) to 1 April 2000. `Family Viewing': King's Head, N1 (0171 226 1916) to 11 December