This is our second dramatic experience of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the first being aged 10 in a village hall. The sight of Tess swinging from the hangman’s noose was enough to create a lasting shiver that resonates to this day, deeply entwined with the dark romanticism of Hardy’s novel itself.
In this musical adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles — a world premiere — at London’s Wimbledon Studio, what's lost in drama is made up for with the sheer volume and skill of songwriting, including for a full orchestra and piano, by composer Alex Loveless. Martin Neely as the condescendingly predatory Alec D’Urberville is particularly good, seducing Tess with a strawberry and his creepy baritone in Forbidden Fruits. Nick Hayes as Angel, true to his name, lights up the stage with energy oozing from every fibre and is the perfect handsome foil to the sinister Alec. Three excellent milkmaids make up the infectiously fun west country ensemble, always on stage as a sort of acting orchestra. Swapping their flutes for banter, dancing and spirited songs, they pick up the pace in between doleful duets.
When it comes to Tess, we have no problems with Jessica Daley as a singer — the former finalist in BBC1’s search for a Dorothy is certainly the strongest in an already fantastic cast. But there should be an intense empathy with Tess, and although Daley is great at suggesting the strong and pragmatic farmer's daughter, her luminous fragility isn't really conveyed.
This Tess is a wonderful musical evening. We can see why the ingredients of murder, villain and tragedy might have inspired a musical (or even opera?). But to experience the true drama of Hardy’s writing, the novel and not the play, in this case, is the thing.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a new musical by Alex Loveless, is at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre until 27 September. Tickets £15.40. We saw this production on a complimentary review ticket.