All Creatures Great and Small
1 Jul 2014
All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot’s famous sequence of novels about a young vet who joins a rural practice in the Yorkshire Dales, has now been adapted for the stage starring a stellar cast and even a real dog, and is the quintessence of those well -known adventures. Yet there is far more to this touring show than a heart-warming yarn.
Yes, it’s funny and some of the jokes are pretty ribald – on their first date young Herriot entertains the adorable Helen an account of how one farmer had rammed a load of onions up the backside of a prize bull as a remedy. She was not amused. But alongside the laughs, there is a great tenderness, and the cast created a wonderfully nostalgic evening of drama at Cambridge Arts Theatre where the play is showing until 5 July.
The first director - who adapted this dense body of work for the stage - is Simon Stallworthy. He makes light of what must have been a huge task. After all there were three novels to decant into a lively two hours of theatre. ‘It was relatively straightforward,’ he says breezily explaining that he followed the romance of young vet James with lovely Helen, the farmer’s daughter and wove in the animal stories as he went.
The action takes place in the 30s. Life is hard for people in the Yorkshire Dales, this is not a Hovis advertisement, farmers struggle with sick animals, loneliness and hardship.
Oliver Mellor as James Herriot has his theatrical work cut out in a physically demanding role, heaving ropes for the birth of unseen calves. We do believe that he’s a strong lad with the brawn to take on the tasks of upland farm crises. And he conveys the character of Herriot so well, his determination, his humour and his deep love of animals. Handsome and hardy with a strong stage presence, Oliver Mellor convinces us he is a safe pair of hands – and a man of deep principal.
Mark Curry as the older vet Siegfried Farnon is a fabulous foil to this down-to earth ordinariness. He has the growly grumpiness of his TV counterpart Robert Hardy with a light sexy playful side that gives the drama a springy zing. Genial and jolly, he virtually drives the action along giving contradictory advice and when his ne’er-do-well idler brother Tristam arrives things get even funnier. ‘My father was a Wagner fan,’ he tells James to explain the family’s outlandish names, the interesting triumvirate is now ready to roll.
There are hoax telephone calls between the two younger men, fun badinage around the table and the constant efforts of layabout Tristram to avoid any work. Lee Latchford-Evans is utterly convincing as the lazy younger brother and he injects just the right level of contemporary rebel spirit to leaven the duller Herriot and turn him into a risk taker. The scene where James is set up with a wonderfully sexy girlfriend and everyone ends up drunk is all Tristram’s doing. Harriet Hare who also plays Emily the sister of James' real love interest is a great scene stealer. And among the more minor characters Rob Maloney as Mr.Calvert, is a role acted with great sensitivity and adds real feeling to the play. Helen, the girl James really loves, is brought to life with great skill by Clare Buckfield – hardly surprising when you consider her credits include a raft of TV shows and some top level theatre work.
There were other treats. Renowned actress Susan Penhaligon almost stole the show at one stage with her portrayal of Mrs. Pumphrey whose comic calling consists of a ridiculous spoiling of Tricky her dog (an animal who can place bets, talk about the weather and according to his owner, tell her when to visit the vet). Tricky, a real Scottie, was very good on stage and as the cast took a bow to a tumultuous audience applause, wagged his tail in appreciation. They say you should never work with children or dogs. Lucky for us the stellar cast of All Creature Great and Small ignored that piece of theatre wisdom to make a lovely, yes heart-warming, evening at the theatre.