THEATRE / Three sides of the triangle: Robert Hanks reviews Shared Experience's Mill on the Floss at the Tricycle

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The Independent Culture
The shadow of the book always hangs over a stage adaptation of a classic novel, and many - even most - never escape it, getting trapped into pedantic rehearsal of the plot. Books necessarily loom large in Shared Experience's version of The Mill on the Floss, now at the Tricycle in Kilburn: as Maggie Tulliver's pet obsession they are scattered around the stage, frantically seized upon, dangled temptingly from above. But there's never any sense that Helen Edmundson's adaptation or Polly Teale and Nancy Meckler's production are overawed by the book. They're faithful to George Eliot's generosity and intelligence, but they do play fast and loose with the conventions of narrative to create a drama that's wonderfully moving and passionate. You certainly never feel for a moment that it's just a sharp attempt to clean up on the post-Middlemarch market.

In some ways, arguably, they even improve on Eliot: in the programme, Edmundson talks about the apparently arbitrary nature of the novel's resolution, when Maggie and her estranged brother Tom are finally brought together by a flood. Here, by picking up and replaying the image from Maggie's childhood reading of a witch being tested by water (if she floats she's a witch, if she drowns - too bad), the adapter makes the ending emerge more naturally from what's come before.

It's only repetition and a growing awareness of how far Maggie's demanding heart and intellect set her apart from her surroundings that make sense of that image, though. Indeed, it's only in the second half that you really sense the scope of the production; to begin with, Meckler and Teale's intentions aren't always apparent - particularly in the stylised movement (by Liz Ranken) and the central conceit of having Maggie played by three actresses.

For most of the first half, Maggie is played by Shirley Henderson as a quick-tempered, impetuous little girl. When her father loses his money, and it looks as though the family will be evicted from the mill, she undergoes a transformation (involving some annoying writhing in front of a mirror) into the paler, thinner Buddug Morgan, who reads Thomas a Kempis and tries to suppress her passions. With the sudden transition from proper little madam to complete drip, the action loses momentum.

The passion and impetus of the second half wash away reservations, though. With the advent of the older and more sensuous Maggie 3 (Helen Schlesinger), the tripling makes more sense - the two earlier selves become on- stage representations of her conflicts. Maggie 1 urges her to obey her impulses by falling for by the lithely seductive Stephen Guest (Simon Robson), while Maggie 2 insists that she do nothing to disrupt his relationship with her cousin Lucy, or her own friendship with the crippled, sensitive Phillip Wakem (an excellent Michael Matus).

There are still stylistically incongruous moments, and occasionally the rush of events makes you blink. Not all the doubling of parts is satisfactory, either (Simeon Andrews, for example, being far more convincing as Maggie's father than as the pious Dr Kenn). But the cast's commitment, and the care with which all the elements of the production - music, lighting, set - are wielded to create a cohesive, forceful narrative make you happy to ignore the glitches.

Box office: 071-328 1000.

(Photograph omitted)

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