IN the early years of the 19th century, the people of Dorset lived in fear of invasion – Napoleon’s forces were just across the Channel and people in Weymouth and along the coast were preparing for the imminent arrival of Boney’s battle-hardened army.
First in the line of defence, if the navy – under its famous and gallant Admiral Lord Nelson – could not drive them back, would be the Yeomanry, the newly formed volunteer regiment, whose officers were drawn from the nobility or the landed gentry, leading men who were often their tenants or had other forms of obligation to the officers.
Pity the poor soldiers led by Captain Festus Derriman, a braggart, coward, bully and womaniser, who plagues his old uncle Squire Derriman and pretty Anne Garland who lives with her widowed mother next door to Miller Loveday. The miller has two sons, Anne’s sweetheart Bob, a sailor, and soldier John, who is in love with her.
So the scene is set for Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet Major, a romance set in the reign of King George III, who was a regular visitor to Weymouth (Budmouth in Hardy’s novel). It was a time when the press gang would seize young men from the streets and pubs, when young women needed to make the best marriages they could, and when men of property thought they could do whatever they wanted with impunity.
The story was dramatised by Alfred Evans in 1908, with contributions from Thomas Hardy, who agreed a change from the novel in the final scene of the play, which ends with music and dancing.
The New Hardy Players are touring a large-scale production of this wonderful tale, one of the most ambitious in their history. It is a triumph for the whole 80-strong company. Directed by Tim Laycock and Penny Levick, with composer and musical director Alastair Simpson, who also plays the reckless Bob Loveday, the cast is led by Tom Archer as John Loveday, the noble Trumpet Major, Harriet Still as the vivacious and brave Anne Garland, Chris Pullen as the crotchety old Squire and Oliver Hickey as the comical but appalling Festus.
The production marks a number of anniversaries – 110 years since the first stage performance, 40 years since Dorchester Dramatic Society performed it for the Thomas Hardy Society, and 50 years since the formation of the Hardy Society.
As always with the Players, there is plenty of music, drawing on Dorset’s rich heritage of folk songs and dances, original music by the versatile and talented Alastair Simpson, who also conducted the Patchwork Orchestra, and commedia dell’arte scenes, mirroring the characters and action of the play, with movement devised by Penny Levick. The costumes, from the colourful uniforms of the men (poor things, they must have been so hot in the sun at Watercombe!) to the sprigged muslin frocks of the young women, were made by Lou Pugh and her team.
The tour of The Trumpet Major continues at Lulworth Cove on Friday 6th July, Bridehead in Littlebredy on Sunday 8th July (2.30 matinee), and Cerne Abbas Vicarage on 13th July and at the Thomas Hardy Conference at Kingston Maurward on Sunday 15th July (all at 7.30pm).
For tickets contact Dorchester Arts on 01305 266926 www.dorchesterarts.org.uk
Pictured: Anne Garland, Anne and Bob Loveday, Festus with the actress Matilda (Fran Sansom), the band (composer Alastair Simpson at left), and the final chorus