Anna of the Five Towns, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme - review

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It’s 150 years since the birth of Arnold Bennett, who put The Potteries so distinctively on the literary map of the nation. No wonder a paramount theatre in the district should choose to celebrate with a new adaptation of one of his most popular novels.

The problem is that Anna of the Five Towns is such an unnatural subject with which to celebrate. It’s the story of a young woman struggling under a sense of duty to a tyrannical and miserly father. She breaks free only to wed herself dutifully to another man she does not truly love.

The drama is powered by the slow turning of financial screws. Anna’s wealthy father Ephraim Tellwright has tenant Titus Price in his debt and gives us an object lesson in how to maximise his advantage. Anna is at first willingly complicit, then reluctantly so. But she is powerless to prevent catastrophe.

She has unexpectedly inherited shares and property from her mother yet control of her fortune passes from her father to her husband without her ever learning how to write a check.

But Anna is also of the five towns. Hers is a story set firmly in the Potteries and adaptor Deborah McAndrew has faithfully included the major settings of the novel – the opening of the new municipal park, the Wesleyan revival meeting, the philanthropic ladies sewing club, and the tour of the state-of-the-art pot bank making affordable tea sets for the colonies.

Many of these scenes are introduced musically with songs from the Phoenix Singers, accompanied by brass, which are not quite folk, not quite brass band, not quite hymn. Then the action moves to a central sunken space, which effectively enhances the sense of Anna’s imprisonment in her father’s dining room and office.

“I’m always in,” Anna tells her suitor Henry Mynors. And as we see her increasingly venture out, she seems to carry the sense of mechanical routine and tight boundaries with her.

“You’ve got a pale Potteries pallor,” would-be patron Mrs Sutton tells Anna. She might well have added, “and you’re ploddingly pedestrian.”

The antidote to Anna’s pedestrian pallor is her half-sister Agnes’ cheerfulness. Rosie Abraham plays her with a cheeky chirpiness that brings welcome relief. Though with no inheritance due when she reaches twenty-one you can only despair for her future as her father’s housekeeper.

An ideal complement to this theatrical celebration of Bennett’s birth, I suggest, is a tour of the Middleport Pottery in Burslem (booking essential – see their website). There you will see the process by which a lump of clay becomes finished pottery, using the same methods as in the 1880’s, only a stone’s throw from Henry Mynor’s fictional pot bank. It is in many ways a grim and tightly controlled, enclosed world. And yet the tour is instructive and undeniably real.

By John Hargreaves


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