MARKING a new direction for Midland Players, their production of the riotous and saucy romp, Tom Jones, at the University Drama Studio next week, will see a contemporary twist on the classic tale.
Henry Fielding’s 18th century comic novel is the fruity tale of an orphaned boy who grows into a kind, if over vigorous, young man. As he moves through the English countryside - meeting a host of colourful characters on the way - we follow his attempts to overcome various dangerous and amorous obstacles to the winning of both the heart of his first love, Sophia and the respect of the man who fostered him.
Directing the production is Mark Feakins, former executive producer of Sheffield Theatres, with more than 20 years of professional experience in the theatre, as actor, stage manager, director and producer.
Since leaving the Crucible in 2009 he has taken a change of direction and set himself up as Marmalade Photography, specialising in weddings. “I love it and it’s a real change,” he says. “I think some photographers give the impression they’d rather not be doing it, but I see it as something creative. You are part of a show. A wedding is all theatre, after all, with the costumes and props.”
Tom Jones brings him back to real theatre. “It’s nice to come back to it as a hobby rather than a career,” he says. “After working so long with professionals, I have been really impressed by the commitment of the cast who have had to fit it around their working lives. “
They are all local performers led by Jamie Nuttall as the handsome hero and his ladies of varying virtues played by Joanne Ringrose (Mrs Fitzpatrick), Hannah Wright (Sophia Weston), Catherine Newsome (Mrs Waters), Danielle Birks (Molly Seagrim) who are joined by Frank Badger, Jonathan Cheetham, Chrissy Almond, Philip Ashton, Rosie Dyson, Ronan Miskimmin, Margaret Stone, Jan Wright, and Marc Vestey.
The 14 of them share 30 roles in what is an episodic story. Feakins was keen to take a fresh approach. “There are a lot of stage directions in Joan MacAlpine’s text which makes it seem a bit dry when you read it so I crossed them all out and encouraged the cast to create their own movement in response to the words they were saying.
“We’re doing it in period costume but in a modern way with contemporary music,” he says.
“Tom Jones was a shocking book in its time – women were warned off it. We’re not shocked by it any more, but it’s quite cheeky.
“It’s about a young man growing up. He stops being a boy and becomes a man and girls stop being friends but become something very different in his eyes.”
Some are uneasy with its depiction of women. “One of the things that’s interesting about it is the role of women at that time. Some say that Molly, the gamekeeper’s daughter, and Sophia, the squire’s daughter, are submissive but along with Mrs Fitzpatrick they all had to use men. They had no other choice in those days and that shows them as strong rather than weak characters.”
In Fielding’s book the narrator likens the novel to a literary feast and the opening chapters to a menu. Which leads us neatly on to the director’s other claim to fame.
This time last year Mark Feakins was filming the Sheffield edition of Channel 4’s hugely popular Come Dine with Me – which he went on to win.
Since its transmission last December and subsequent repeats, Feakins has been surprised how many strangers have recognised him from the show. “Even when we were in Copenhagen. Admittedly they were British, but even so...”
He was one of the five picked from 300 applicants. “We were all very different but got on really well over the five days and I’m still in touch with some of them,” he says. “The thing people remember about my episode was that I switched the wine to catch out the wine expert. It wasn’t my idea, the producers suggested it and I went along with it. You don’t go on the programme if you don’t want your leg pulled. You know you will get laughed at.”
Tom Jones is at the University Drama Studio from Wednesday to Saturday.