Taking a highly respected and successful TV sitcom and transporting it to the stage is not as straightforward as it might seem. Luckily, the Altrincham Garrick has the services of Ian Gower and Paul Carpenter. Gower has previous form having adapted and produced stage versions of other popular TV sitcoms like Dad’s Army and Porridge – and it shows in this affectionate and slick tribute to The Vicar of Dibley.
For those not in the know, The Vicar of Dibley was a BBC sitcom that arose from from the Church of England allowing female vicars for the first time. Dawn French played Geraldine Grainger, a vicar assigned to the sleepy village of Dibley on and off from 1994-2007. Created and written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) it was a significant hit with its blend of characters and gentle humour.
Based on those scripts, Gower and Carpenter have taken many of the more memorable sections and distilled them into the Garrick’s adaptation. From the outrage of the Parish Council at the arrival of the new, female vicar through to Alice and Hugo’s unforgettable wedding, the Garrick’s production of Dibley is like a greatest hits package, and a rather splendid one at that. It is testament to the cross generation appeal of Dibley that people of all ages were filling up the Garrick’s seats.
Dawn French’s depiction of Geraldine Grainger was perfection. French’s chocolate chomping, fun loving vicar was rightly a comedy highlight of the 1990’s. Victoria Johnson has the difficult task of stepping into these shoes and pulls the role off with aplomb. An absolute triumph, she completely embodies the character and retains a slight French influence whilst still putting her own energetic and feisty mark on the character.
It’s been commented that The Vicar of Dibley is something of an ensemble piece rather than being a vehicle for its main star. The same is true of the Garrick’s adaptation with a strong core cast of 8 sharing more or less equal stage time. It therefore becomes difficult to single out specific performances. Brian Pickle brings the idiosyncratic Jim Trott to life entertainingly with much of his performance prefaced with the character’s trademark ‘No, no, no, no..’ whilst Pat Williamson’s woeful cooking efforts as Letitia Cropley provide much amusement. David Reynolds’ ruthlessly officious David Horton is the perfect foil for Bill Platt’s mercilessly pedantic Frank Pickle.
However, it is Andrew Higson’s note perfect Owen Newitt with his laconic delivery and risque comments that steals the show. Higson’s performance evokes disgust and sympathy from the audience in equal measure, with him proving to have impeccable comic timing. Hugh Everett’s physicality is put to good use as Hugo Horton’s awkwardness and shy nature manifest themselves whilst around Alison Davenport’s adorably dippy Alice Tinker. Everett and Davenport go under an endurance test of sorts during the performance, the exact circumstances of which I won’t mention here – but provided much hilarity for the audience!
Celia Bonner’s direction completely gets the gentle nature of Dibley and makes for a formidable pairing when combined with Barry Fletcher’s excellent set design. It’s testament to the whole team that several times during the performance I caught myself believing I was watching the television version rather than a stage one. Close your eyes briefly, and you can believe you are listening to the original cast. By the time that David pleads with Geraldine to stay at the conclusion, you’re wishing you could see more of this excellent production – and with all royalties going to Comic Relief, you have no reason not to treat yourself this Christmas.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Vicar of Dibley five strokes out of five:
The Vicar of Dibley runs until Saturday 7 December at the Altrincham Garrick on Barrington Road, Altrincham. There is limited availability so book now! With thanks to the Altrincham Garrick.