Cold Comfort Farm: 3rd-5th February 2000

By Paul Doust from the classic rural novel by Stella Gibbons. The tale of Aunt Ada Doom who..”Saw Something NARSTY in the Woodshed” and her family.

This must have been a difficult production task for Pat Davies, with at least three directors in the cast, but it ended up as a great success. For me, the three stars were Richard Hughes, William Tombs and Jane Amherst, but I thoroughly enjoyed playing my part, even though it did entail falling face down into cold porridge.

Brenda Read-Brown as Judith Starkadder

I was fresh ‘off the boat’ from Virginia, and just turned 18, and Cold Comfort Farm was my first introduction to TADS. Being welcomed into the on-stage Starkadder family, I found my first friends in Tewkesbury – a group of talented people whom I admired and learned much from. Particularly I remember excellent choral-speech work overseen by Geoff Guy, quivering zealously among the Quivering Brethren, and a marvelous ever growing ‘sukebind’, whose vines slowly entangled the stage. Everybody loved the material, and we shared our enjoyment in the words. Every part was memorable.

William Tombs as Seth Starkadder

Watch the video of the TADS production here.

Full GDA adjudication:

An adaptation of a novel for the stage always has inherent problems. Most of these can be overcome on television or film, the camera enabling differences in location, etc., to be portrayed without difficulty. This, however, is not the case in theatre, and I was intrigued to find out how the TADS coped with this problem. Furthermore, it being a satire, it requires a treatment leaning toward the farcical.

I am delighted to say that in general my fears proved to be groundless and all the inherent pitfalls were dealt with expertly. The cast were fully aware of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the script, and the stereotypical characterizations were ‘spot on’ and very funny. The cast did not fall into the trap of melodrama and managed to keep the balance in ‘sending up’ and exaggerating situations while preserving a modicum of truth in the decaying farm and its bizarre inhabitants.

The production was very well presented. After an initial somewhat hurried start, the pace of the action was very good indeed; it is important that the dialogue be clear and unhurried from the beginning in order to give a clear indication of what is going on. However the torrid plot soon became clear, and projection and pace soon settled down and was sustained throughout. The concentration, teamwork and discipline of the cast could not be faulted. This theatre provides excellent facilities which were well utilised in the production, and I must congratulate the Stage Manager, his team and backstage helpers on such a professional show.

There were basically two main sets; the kitchen and its upper-level, and the gardens at Hautcouture Hall. Both were cleverly conceived and designed. I particularly liked the rear exit behind the amazing Sukebind plant and the staircase leading to Ada Doom’s lair. Both were used intelligently and effectively. My only criticism would be that the Starkadder’s kitchen was far from grotesque and disgusting. It was far too clean and tidy. All the essentials were there – the wooden table and chairs, (why the bright green one?), the fireplace and spit, not forgetting the toasted water-voles, large sink and the ill-fated clock. I simply wanted to see much more clutter and squalor. After all, Flora’s first words were, ‘I cannot endure messes”!
The cowshed scene worked well, aided and abetted by the superb ‘chorus’, Adam with his wooden leg and ‘cow; simple but effective.

Again the meeting place of the Quivering Brethren was intelligently and simply contrived. The ballroom at Hautcouture Hall was quite breathtaking and the superb staircase added level and interest to the scene. The transformation of the kitchen at the end of the play was carried out smoothly and efficiently, the end-result being visually quite stunning.

The wardrobe team certainly went to town’ with this production. There was a splendid array of costumes – from Flora’s immaculate ensembles to Daft Rennet’s nightgown. It is so important that a costume be a reflection of the character, and it was obvious that intelligent and careful thought had gone into each one. I loved Flora’s beautiful hats and shoes and Aunt Ada’s flying suit. Flora’s outfits were seemingly period pieces which fitted beautifully, and appeared timeless.

These were numerous and appeared effortlessly onto the stage but, as I mentioned previously, I felt that a more cluttered kitchen interior was needed – eg remains of a meal, piled up crockery in the sink, garden tools, heavy family portraits of previous Starkadders, etc. Nevertheless, the essential props appeared smoothly and effortlessly.
Congratulations on a mammoth task well done.

The director must have had much discussion with the cast during rehearsals for they clearly understood the particular demands of this difficult play. The pace rarely flagged, the only time I can bring to mind was just prior to Ada’s final entrance in her flying outfit. Maybe it took a little extra time for the change of costume but the action flagged a little until she arrived on the scene. Initially there was a tendency for the actors to address dialogue directly into the scene and, consequently, the voice failed to be thrown toward the audience. There is, (as I am sure you are aware), a specific technique involved in order to accomplish this.

The props, as I have mentioned previously, were numerous and well organised although the buckets in the milking scene were much too clean and shiny and the diminutive teapot could hardly have sufficed to service the whole Starkadder tribe! There was ample evidence of excellent team work amongst the cast. Particularly impressive was your work with the chorus. Each time they appeared they lifted the production a notch, to an even higher level! I was particularly impressed with the meeting of the Quivering Brethren. The reactions of the chorus here were excellent – a most impressive and amusing scene – using positioning which was visually very affective. The grouping in the ‘Counting’ was also most commendable – not an easy task by any means. The staircase in the Garden scene gave an opportunity for some interesting use of levels which were utilised to great advantage. This was a fascinating production, directed with creativity, originality and imagination. Congratulations.

My only adverse criticism of this actor is limited to the first five minutes of her performance. I found her pace a little too fast and lost a little of the dialogue. Otherwise this was an outstanding performance which I cannot praise too highly; it was energetic and lively and she knew what she was about at all times. Lots of variations in tone and confident movements about the stage. She had perfected the technique which I mentioned before, ie it is perfectly possible to appear to be looking at people on stage whilst keeping one’s face to the audience! The confrontation with Ada was expertly handled and showed her versatility. Her long monologues were delivered faultlessly and in a very well modulated way. Her confident and blithe handling of the photo-session made the whole scene seem amazingly real. She wore her beautiful costumes with panache, was absolutely word-perfect and used the pause most effectively. In fact she was a joy to watch!

Aunt Ada Doom
A fantastically grotesque and funny performance! This was a great effort which was sustained throughout, doing great justice to what must have been a wonderful part to play. It must have been quite gruelling to have to sit quietly, perched in her lair, for most of Act 1. but she certainly made up for it with her first long speech, and from that moment onwards her every entrance had a great impact on the fascinated audience. She had excellent projection and great stage presence – an excellent performance.

Elaine Starkadder
Elfine is supposedly a waif-like, fey creature given to writing poems of love where ‘she be alone wi’ ‘er dreams’! This Elfine was a little more substantial and gave the character a more earthy quality. Her rural accent was very authentic and well sustained. A most commendable performance.

Daft Rennet/ Mrs. Hawk-Monitor
What a contrast when this actor became the sophisticated, attractive Mrs Hawk-Monitor! Her facial grimaces , gormless sluttenly attitude as Rennet – underwent a miraculous transformation, not only in her appearance, but in her attitude, speech and posture. This ability demonstrated experience and talent. Well done!

Seth Starkadder
A most commendable effort. This character simply oozes testosterone his voice throbbing with lust’- and while the actor certainly looked the part I feel that he could have been a little more sexy in his movements. He mastered the art of sauntering’ most amusingly and when he struck a pose he was very funny indeed. I liked his indolent attitude but I feel that he needed a little more projection – one or two words were rather indistinct.

I had a feeling that this actor was rather inexperienced. He lacked confidence and consequently gave a rather restricted performance. He could with advantage have played up the ‘Hooray Henry’ aspect of the character. I also had difficulty in hearing parts of his dialogue. Nevertheless, a credible performance.

Not a great deal of dialogue but, my goodness, he delivered his Haa’s with passion and certainly contributed to the humour in the production. He did well as Richard Hawk-Monitor.

Amos Starkadder
This performance put me in mind of the fire and brimstone fervour of the Welsh ministers of old and in particular of the Salem preacher in The Crucible’ which – after all – was what it was intended to do, or at least something like that! He put fear and trembling in the members of the choir with his threats of everlasting damnation! A strong and dynamic interpretation which emphasised the satirical nature of the situation. A good strong voice and a great contrast to his other small, but sound, portrayal of Sneller.

Reuben Starkadder
A very sound, commendable effort – he looked right for the role and sustained it well. Good projection and a relaxed performance. I could understand why Flora warmed towards him at the end – he was just a big softy!

Adam Lambsbreath
I am sure that this actor had trouble standing up by the end of the week! I thought he did well in the milking scene and as for his ‘mindless crooning’ – I was quite impressed! The smock, the improbable facial hair and his ungainly loping gait, all helped I am sure, to strengthen the ‘deep primitive silent down-dragging link’ between himself and Graceless the unfortunate cow with the wooden leg! A most humorous performance.

Mr Neck
I was not altogether convinced by this interpretation. I felt that it smacked more of a member of the Mafia than the typical Hollywood film producer – but then. …? Nevertheless it was played with plenty of gusto and energy. The accent was well sustained and quite acceptable. He maintained the pace well, and his passionate clinch with Judith was very funny.

The Chorus
These actors were quite superb. They entered into the spirit of the genre with hilarious results. Each time they appeared they captivated the audience with their excellent choral speaking which squeezed every ounce of humour from the lines. I simply could not fault them.

County Set/Markaddets
The supporting cast all helped tremendously to make this production a success. Well done!
I congratulate TADS on a most ingenious and stimulating evening of theatre. My sincere thanks and praise to all the company and backstage crew for all their hard work and attention to detail. My companion and I enjoyed ourselves very much and greatly appreciated your very kind hospitality.

Dora Brooking