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THIS STORY LAST UPDATED: 07 May 2004 1019 BST
World premiere for 'new' Jamaica Inn
Paul Mihell as Harry the Pedlar and Laura Rogers as Mary Yellan

Salisbury Playhouse produces the world premiere of a brand new adaptation of Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier's classic novel, from Thursday 29 April until Saturday 22 May.

• Read our review here

Lisa Evans, who has written the script, has previously adapted 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' which ran at the Playhouse in 2000. This production will be Salisbury Playhouse's first independent touring show.

Production shot - Jamaica Inn
Laura Rogers as Mary Yellan and Mark Jax as Joss Merlyn

Jamaica Inn is an evocative and chilling tale set at the heart of the bleak Bodmin Moor in Cornwall in the 1800s. When young Mary Yellan obeys her Mother's dying wish and goes to live with her estranged aunt and uncle in Jamaica Inn, she soon discovers mysterious goings on in the dead of night and dark events taking place on the Cornish coast. However, as she searches for the truth, she finds herself witness to events more horrific than she ever could have imagined.

James Duke as Francis Davey

This production reunites the creative team that produced Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg's musical The Hired Man at the Playhouse last year. It is directed by Joanna Read, Artistic Director of Salisbury Playhouse, designed by Su Houser, and has original sound, music and movement designed by Matthew Bugg. Lighting is once again designed by Jim Simmons.

Mary Yellan is played by Laura Rogers, who played Bianca in Phyllida Lloyd's production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe last year. Her violent uncle, Joss Merlyn, is played by Mark Jax, last seen at Salisbury Playhouse as Dr Marakov in Joanna Read's production of Barbarians last year.

Production shot - Jamaica Inn
Laura Rogers as Mary Yellan and Mark Jax as Joss Merlyn

Jem is played by Marcello Watson whose credits include MacHeath in The Beggars Opera at Bristol Old Vic and Tony in Beautiful Thing at York Theatre Royal.

Francis Davey is played by James Duke who was last seen at the Playhouse in the role of Quine in Michael Frayn's Donkeys' Years in 2002.

The cast is completed by Wiltshire born Lisa McNaught as the Narrator, Sara Weymouth as Aunt Patience, Chris Garner as Squire Bassat and Paul Mihell as Richard.

• Read our review

It's tempting to rename this production 'Jamaica!", since Lisa Evans' new adaptation of 'Jamaica Inn' leans towards the West End musical rather than a good old-fashioned piece of melodrama.

The production opens with a musical number sung by Mary Yellan's narrative conscience, played by Lisa McNaught, and was a warning to anyone expecting to see a faithful re-working of past productions that this version of 'Jamaica Inn' was going to be different.

As the actors developed their roles, it was soon evident that all the players had been well cast.

Laura Rogers' sensitive portrayal of Mary Yellan was perfect - her shock of red hair complementing her poor, downtrodden and abused character.

Her wicked smuggler-uncle, Joss Merlyn, played by Mark Jax, was portrayed as a suitably greasy rogue whose manner was beautifully reflected in the way he wiped a piece of bread, which had fallen on the floor butter-side down, on his sleeve - an action that produced a suitable response from the audience!

If anything, Mark Jax's portrayal could have been even larger-than-life and perhaps a little more 'in your face', but nevertheless, you couldn't help but dislike this obnoxious rogue - lovable he was not.

The opening of Act One's third scene, however, managed to break the spell that had been cast by the atmospheric opening to the play. It was difficult to understand why it was necessary to have members of the cast dressed as sheep (and later dogs, horses and chickens).

From this point onwards, the production lost some credibility and talking to people during the interval some said it reminded them of school nativity plays where the little-ones dress up as sheep et al.

It seems a shame that a tale as strong as Jamaica Inn should have to resort to stylising such a great story in this way. It begs the question: what is it trying to be? A musical? A melodrama? A piece of 'new theatre'? May be all three?

A cliché it may be, but it's true to say that 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' - and this applies to DuMaurier's 'Jamaica Inn'.

Apart from this criticism, the production is well-worth a look particularly for it atmospheric use of lighting, designed by Jim Simmons, and its simple-but-effective set, created by Su Houser.

Ms Houser's use of backdrops and drapes transformed the Playhouse stage from the gloomy interior of Jamaica Inn to the wild, granite-strewn, windswept moor with a simple, unobtrusive set change.

Especially effective was the way furniture on the stage was draped in a large sheet of white cloth and then lit carefully to create the boulders of Bodmin Moor.

Matthew Buggs' score added to the mood, with traditional folk-led themes mixed with discordant overtones. The score gave added dimension to the production and, thankfully, didn't distract. Lisa McNaught's strong vocal talent shone through and was delightful, although some of the words of the countermeoldies were lost to the imagination.

For me, Sara Weymouth's portrayal of Mary Yellan's Aunt Patience deserves special comment; totally believable, suitably hysterical at times and yet full of compassion towards her niece. Patience represents the wife who lives-in-fear of her bullying husband and Sara Weymouth played the part with absolute conviction.

But there was something rather familiar in this new version of 'Jamaica Inn'. After a few exchanges between Joss and Patience and Mary Yellan it soon became apparent that the production had the characteristics of an Eastenders' episode set in deepest, darkest 19th century Cornwall, complete with misogynistic male misfits and weak, woeful women; and this isn't at all surprising when you realise that Lisa Evans is a script writer for the BBC's top soap!

It's a brave writer who takes a well-loved piece and brings it up-to-date in some way and Lisa Evans has been brave certainly, but it's tempting to urge her to re-consider some of those 'comic' animal moments and get back to true heart of Jamaica Inn and its dark, foreboding secret!

JH

What: Jamaica Inn
When: Thursday 29 April - Saturday 22 May
How much? Tickets: £8.50 - £17.00
More details: For further information and to book tickets, call the Box Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com.
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