Claybody Theatre’s The Card brings to life Arnold Bennett’s comic novel at New Vic Theatre

“What a card! He’s a rare ‘un, make no mistake”

Following a successful original production at Fenton Town Hall in 2022, a revival of Claybody Theatre’s adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s The Card is dazzling, educating and immersing audiences at Newcastle’s New Vic for the next two weeks. 

Inventively adapted by former Coronation Street star, Deborah McAndrew, and faultlessly directed by Conrad Nelson, the fictional story documents the rags to riches transformation of  loveable rogue Edward Henry Machin, who’s mother saved mere seconds a day by calling him ‘Denry’.

Gareth Cassidy. Photo by Mark Douet

We are introduced to Denry Machin, masterfully played by New Vic favourite Gareth Cassidy, when his statue is unveiled in St. Luke’s Square. It shows the character during his humble beginnings as a clerk, before his opportunistic rise to the top as Bursley’s youngest ever mayor.

Originally a 1911 book, The Card was turned into a film in 1952, but it’s the stage show that truly brings this story and its characters to life. Set in a fictionalised 19th century Stoke-on-Trent known as The Five Towns, we are afforded the opportunity to learn of the washerwoman’s son who climbed the social ladder to high status with little more than initiative, luck, and the help of influential women.

Jenny Murphy and Gareth Cassidy. Photo by Mark Douet

The Card features a cast of eight talented actors from the Claybody Theatre Company, lead by Gareth, who we’ve previously seen in shows such as Ladies’ Day and Marvellous, where he performed one of several incarnations of living local legend, Neil Baldwin. 

The talented performer assumed the role of the ultimate side hustler, with his body-rippling lightbulb moments and madcap money-making schemes, bringing humour, heart and adventure to this vivid and fast-paced production, with the regional accent to match.

Howard Chadwick is versatile as businessman Mr Duncalf, Superintendent of Police and Councillor Barlow, but it’s his role as Mrs Machin that was the clear audience favourite, the elderly seamstress in her little cottage, bonnet, beard and all. Her interaction with Mr Wilbrum was particularly comical, with the crowds roaring with laughter as she upturned a Wedgwood vase – just to check.

Gareth Cassidy, Molly Roberts, Jenny Murphy, Eddy Westbury, Isobel Chadwick. Photo by Mark Douet

Jessica Dyas is a brilliant social climbing Ruth Earp, while Molly Roberts entertains as The Countess of Chell and old (no, older than that) Widow Hullins. Isobel Chadwick made her professional debut as the office boy, but it was Jenny Murphy’s gentle and kind-hearted Nellie that everyone fell in love with. 

With the cast playing multiple roles, Claybody wonderfully bend gender norms, with Christopher Glover switching between the Mayor of Bursley 2022, and Harold Etches, to Mrs Codleyn, while Eddy Westbury – who was fantastic in Tom, Dick and Harry – reinvented his characters from Jock and Charles Fearns, to the Chair of the Denry Machin Society. The reliable supporting cast were joined by Acceler8 Brass Band, punctuating each scene with witty comic timing.

Gareth Cassidy, Jessica Dyas and Molly Roberts. Photo by Mark Douet.

I’ve seen some magnificent special effects in West End shows, from the flying DeLorean of Back To The Future, to Pi disappearing into the sea in Life of Pi, but such effects aren’t necessary here at the New Vic, with the team’s imaginative and old-fashioned tricks turning coconut-halves into clip-clopping mules just like the old primary school Nativity days, with scenes in the Shropshire Canal and Llandudno unassisted by modern tech – it’s simply surplus to requirement. 

With all the regency-era vibes to delight fans of Bridgerton, and plenty of Potteries references from the set’s beautiful Minton tiles and the mention of a bowl of lobby, The Card is a story that feels so real, I had to Google ‘Edward Henry Machin’ just to double-check he wasn’t a real person, despite knowing it’s a work of fiction.

Claybody Theatre’s adaptation of The Card is an inventive and immersive retelling of this classic comic novel from the prolific Potteries author Arnold Bennett. Fast-paced, energetic and full of ‘dash’, it is a humorous and heartfelt show identified with “the great cause of cheering us all up” as well as serving as a reminder to dream big.  

The Card takes to the stage at the New Vic from Saturday 20 May to Saturday 10 June 2023. Tickets are on sale now, priced from £20.00. For more information and to book call the Box Office on 01782 717962 or online at newvictheatre.org.uk.

Gareth Cassidy. Photo by Mark Douet
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