REVIEW: 1812 Theatre Company in The Vicar of Dibley, Helmsley Arts Centre, until Saturday ****

Julia Bullock’s Geraldine Granger receives a frosty reception from Grahame Sammons’s parish council chairman David Horton on introducing herself as the new vicar. Oliver Clive’s Hugo Horton looks on rather more admiringly. Picture: Joe Coughlan

WHEN The Vicar Of Dibley was suggested for 1812 Theatre Company’s summer show, director Julie Lomas “had some reservations”. Who could follow comedy icon Dawn French and the rest from Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew- Archer’s beloved BBC series, she wondered.

Allaying those concerns, she found all her players in her first round of auditions, combining company debutants with familiar faces from Helmsley Arts Centre’s resident company, including Richard Noakes in his 51st appearance “in some way or other” at the Old Meeting House.

Two new members feature, led by Julia Bullock, from the Harrogate theatre scene, making “chocoholic sex kitten” Reverend Geraldine Granger her own, albeit with the Dawn French bob.

Beaj Johnson is stepping up for his stage debut at 60 as no, no, no, yes, Jim Trott, after many years as a photographer in the theatre world, taking portraits of Rik Mayall, Julian Clary, Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and…Dawn French (as featured with a flower in the 1812 programme). Not so much no, as yes, yes, yes, such is the comic joy of his terpsichorean turn as the dithering, rumbustious Jim.

Julie Lomas not only directs but also has credits for sound design (with John Lomas), set and lighting design, set decoration (with Pauline Noakes and Becca Magson), wardrobe (with Bullock and Magson) and programme design.

All in favour: Mike Martin’s Owen Newitt, left, Julia Bullock’s Geraldine Granger, Oliver Clive’s Hugo Horton, Grahame Sammons’s David Horton, Richard Noakes’s Frank Pickle, Sue Smith’s Sue Cropley and Beaj Johnson’s Jim Trott at a Dibley Parish Council

Hats off to such a hands-on contribution, but that’s not all. She has adapted the original Curtis & Mayhew-Archer script too, retaining the 1990s’ setting, with references to William Hague, Norma Major and Anne Robinson, but ostensibly moving the location from the south to Yorkshire, although only the vicar of Dibley dabbles in pronounced northern vowels, enhancing Bullock’s distancing from the French style.

The rest mirror the accents of the TV originals, adding to the mist of nostalgia that had seen this week’s evening performances all but sell out in advance. (N.B. Two tickets are still available for Saturday night, more for the matinee).

The play starts where else but at the Dibley Parish Council meeting where misogynistic, autocratic chairman David Horton (Grahame [CORRECT] Sammons, stuffed of shirt, acid of mouth) announces the need to replace the departed Reverend Pottle.

All the favourites are there: the pedantic/fastidious parish clerk Frank Pickle (a steadfast Richard Noakes); Mrs Cropley (stoical Sue Smith), with her waste-not but not-wanted nibbles; geeky, quirky Hugo Horton (Oliver Clive); the aforementioned Jim (Johnson, as much a nod to Wilfrid Brambell and Ade Edmondson as to Roger Lloyd Pack ) and the late-arriving Owen Newitt, (a bucolic, West Country, hangdog Mike Martin), struggling with his latest bowel affliction.

Lomas quickly establishes economy of scene and speed of scene change with an open plan set that combines the Horton mansion with the village hall and the vicarage, topped off by a stained-glass window that will come into play late on as Barry Whitaker’s Bishop of Mulberry makes his mark.

At last! Julia Bullock’s Geraldine Granger celebrates as Oliver Clive’s Hugo Horton and Jeanette Hambidge’s Alice Tinker finally have their Rodin sculpture moment. Picture: Joe Coughlan

All gather at Horton HQ for the arrival of the new vicar, Horton handing out the cheap sherry. Not a woman, he prays. Enter Bullock’s Geraldine Granger, the answer to the village’s prayers as it turns out. Immediately drawing attention to her bust, and instantly demanding whisky, she is frank, fearless, forthright, funny. She loves Sean Bean, she loves a naughty joke, she loves chocolate, she loves love, what’s not to love?

Crucial too is the vicar’s relationship with Alice Tinker, the verger, so maddening, unpredictable, pedantic, sometimes as thick as clotted cream, yet as lovable too. Here Lomas has cast superbly in Jeanette Hambidge for a role that demands a multi-faceted performance, and Bullock and Hambidge duly bring out the best in each other.

In her programme notes, Lomas had highlighted not only nostalgia but poignancy too, a characteristic that applies to both the slow-to-blossom romance of Hugo and Alice – beautifully, tentatively, tenderly played by Clive and Hambidge – and to the emotionally parched Horton developing feelings for Geraldine. Sammons plays these scenes particularly well, full of delusion, then the drain of reality and sudden generosity of spirit, bringing a lump to the throat.

Lomas wrote too of the “comedy still being fresh”, despite the period setting, the absence of mobile phones, and it is to her cast’s huge credit that they have all made it fresh anew, episodic in structure, but complete in a way that a sitcom episode cannot be. How else could it finish but with Geraldine and Alice on different wavelengths in a kitchen conversation.

1812 Theatre Company in The Vicar Of Dibley, Helmsley Arts Centre, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01439 771700 or helmsleyarts.co.uk.

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