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North and South review at Pitlochry Festival Theatre – ‘thoughtful staging of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel’

Harry Long and Claire Dargo in North and South at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Photo: Douglas McBride

The final show of Elizabeth Newman’s impressive debut summer season as artistic director at Pitlochry Festival Theatre bears all the hallmarks of her work.

On one level, Janys Chambers’ adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s socially-concerned novel of 1854 contains plenty of costumed period drama elegance and odd-couple romantic intrigue between its protagonists; yet its genteel surface is frequently pierced by a thoughtful and timeless consideration of poverty, privilege, class warfare and the nature of capitalism.

Claire Dargo is suitably spirited as Gaskell’s heroine Margaret Hale, a cosseted yet outspoken young pastor’s daughter from the south of England who moves to the northern English town of Milton when her father (Marc Small, earnest and spiritual) renounces his vocation in favour of education.

Mr Hale’s new charge is cotton mill owner John Thornton (Harry Long), whose northern accent and lack of classical education put him at odds with the incoming southerners; as does his proficiency in the unruly field of ‘business’, which involves no concern for the quality of his workers’ lives, his single thought being to keep the business afloat in a tough market.

From this base, Margaret and John’s budding romance seems all but impossible. And once it’s requited, there’s still a sense that it remains secondary to the sprawling aftershocks of the Industrial Revolution.

In truth, Gaskell’s tale is a sprawling one, written in a time when capitalism was a patriarchal and benevolent beast. Its many incidental characters are wrestled bravely into some sort of narrative direction by Chambers and Newman.

More satisfying than the individual lives evoked here – by a quality cast – is the sense of this society shifting in the background, as illustrated by a large and impressive community chorus, and Amanda Stoodley’s transformative set of idyllic tall trees that transfigure into smoke-belching chimneys.

Pitlochry artistic director Elizabeth Newman: ‘Open every window and door – let everyone in’

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s sprawling 19th-century novel of class and capitalism is brought to life in this impressively community-involved show