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George Irving Milton Keynes review
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Review by Karen Brain.
(2nd October 2006)

Regarded as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ is brought to the British stage for the first time in this exciting new adaptation by Mark Healy, co-produced by Milton Keynes new Chief Executive, Rachel Tackley.

During an era absorbed by Victorian morals, manners, hypocrisy and complex social issues, this is a timeless story of forbidden love, temptation and a fight for personal freedom.

The stunning set – although it never changed – was superb; a series of platforms and stairways, a desk adorned with writing tools and books gently lit by a lamp – all of which, cleverly accommodated every scene, depicting a wide variety of settings from Lyme Regis, to London and America. The scene changes were choreographed with amazing precision and aided by fluid lighting changes focussing and dimming around the set, and intermittent flashes of lightning and dramatic music building and undulating with the storyline.

The sound of a typewriter and the image of a struggling writer set the scene. Joined by a busy assembly of disparate characters milling around his consciousness, he screams "Stop… I don't know where to begin" and so the tale unfolds.

Set in 1867, the story follows the relationship between antagonised social outcast Sarah Woodruff, (known locally as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” following a rumour that she stands on the shoreline awaiting a married French sailor with whom she had an affair) and a well-to-do amateur palaeontologist Charles Smithson played by Anthony Howell (best known as Paul Milner in Foyle’s War) who is drawn to her defiant spirit.

Whilst exploring fossil beds on the seashore, Charles happens across Sarah (played by Katy Odey) when he sees her cloaked figure standing alone at the end of a sea rampart. In an obsessive quest to discover the truth about her, he finds himself in dangerous waters risking social ostracism and his title as a gentleman, when he breaks off his engagement to fiancée Ernestina so that he can pursue Sarah.

The Writer played by George Irving (probably best known for his role as Anthony Meyer in Holby City) is a constant presence throughout the play, cleverly woven into the plot both interacting with the characters and watching events unfold.

There were some truly stellar performances from the entire cast, including Hannah Young as Ernestina whose emotional final scene demonstrated the unravelling of her life.

All in all I would heartily recommend this remarkable production. It has everything from passion to excitement to tragedy and a clever adaptation of the double ending in the original novel!

By Karen Brain