The Village School

Redlynch Players and Fordingbridge Players Redlynch Village Hall, Lover, Salisbury John Sivewright

22 May 2024

Theatre adaptations of novels are a risky business, as what works on the page often doesn’t translate to the stage. But this is far from the case with The Village School, a joint production from Redlynch Players and Fordingbridge Players, as director Ron Perry adapted Dora Saint’s first instalment of the Miss Read series (written under the pseudonym of the title character).

Set in the local school in the fictional village of Fairacre in 1955, The Village School chronicles the eponymous Headmistress, her eccentric collection of staff, the pupils in her care and the general goings-on of quaint village life over the course of one term, with the social commentary of their ways becoming somewhat antiquated bubbling under the surface.  While the novels are new on me, Village School was once a set text for CSE English and the series continues to be popular to this day, with packed houses all week at the Redlynch Village Hall proving a testament to their enduring quality.

A 13-strong cast all worked extremely hard to bring this piece to life, and there were no weak links. The leading role of Miss Read was a demanding one, as she, to my recollection, didn’t leave the stage throughout, and Gina Hodsman excelled. She brought a beautifully understated quality to the role, observing the general hubbub of village school life with an occasional wry wit and had an elegance and poise that really shone through. Her acting chops especially showed in the final scene where she held the stage wonderfully and brought the play to a tender, moving conclusion without uttering a word.

Notable among the supporting roles were Sarah Newman as the wonderfully cantankerous school cleaner, Mrs Pringle, Graham Collier’s homely caretaker, Mr Willet, and Andrew Harrison-King’s softly spoken vicar, Reverend Gerald Patridge, while Ali Silver gave a lovely, unaccompanied vocal rendition of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ as the Chorister. The schoolchildren were amusingly played by adults of quite a range of ages (!); this would be unlikely to work in many genres, but it found just the right note here. All the cast coped well with acting as stagehands under the watchful eye of Stage Managers Mark Newman and Marilyn Perry (the former also in the cast as hyperactive schoolboy, Ernest, and the snooty schoolboard representative, Mr Salisbury); while the scene changes were many and a little plodding in nature, that actually fit the naturally slower pace of village life well and didn’t detract.

Ron Perry’s passion for his work and eye for detail were evident throughout. The production was staged imaginatively, with a thrust-style seating arrangement, the audience sat down both sides of the hall with stages at both ends and schoolroom chairs and tables in the middle. This allowed both the classroom and Miss Read’s front room to be depicted throughout the play and gave the audience an intimacy that was not unlike that of reading a novel. Unfortunately, one of the raised stages was so small that, when occupied by three or four actors, they had no choice but to stand in rather unsightly straight lines; more discerning direction might have worked here, perhaps keeping one or two cast on the floor.  But I digress; these moments were quite few. In a lovely touch, large prints from long-time Miss Read illustrator, J.S. Goodall, were hung on the walls around the hall. Costume and props were just right for the period, while lighting was subtle and unobtrusive and the sound incorporated pieces from Enya and Christopher Tin, the former of whom was clearly a fan of the novels, as tracks on albums ‘Watermark’ and ‘Shepherd Moons’ were named after the Miss Read series.

This was not the first Miss Read adaptation performed by the Players (they staged Thrush Green in 2017) and, if the high standard of The Village School is anything to go by, I hope it’s not their last.