Tom Jones review – this show should sizzle… but there’s absolutely no chemistry here

A period romance, based on a classic 18th century novel where “love conquers all”? It takes a big moment – that scene where the hero and heroine realize they are definitely entwined, the air between them crackles and we, the swoon audience, become, in that moment, as attached to their love as ‘them. In the first episode of Tom Jones, a dramatization of Henry Fielding’s 1749 book, the moment… never comes. The spark never ignites. As a result, the show runs for four hours in a professional pursuit of nothing more.

Solly McLeod, blond hair and square temples, is Tom’s foundling. He was abandoned as a newborn in the home of wealthy country magistrate Squire Allworthy (James Fleet) and brought up by the Esquire and his sister Bridget, lovingly but with no pretense that their ward is anything but lower class. This is partly because the house also contains toxic snob William Blifil (James Wilbraham), the result of Bridget’s brief marriage to a posh yuck.

Tom is happy enough to fire his catapult, race through the woods and, when he comes of age, lift the many petticoats of a poacher’s daughter. But when he reunites as an adult with his childhood friend Sophia Western (Sophie Wilde), the daughter of the stately home next door, his life changes: they want to get married and cannot, because Tom is a bastard. Sophia is asked to marry the single-brow misfit Blifil instead. The resulting argument leads to Tom’s banishment and Sophia’s flight. They both end up in London, where Tom, estranged from Sophia, is drawn into sexy adventures.

The main man here is meant to be bawdy and mischievous, ultimately an honest hero, but who needs a lot of gross errors out of his system before that goodness fully emerges. McLeod is too reserved a performer to pull this off: his Tom seems awfully sensible right off the bat. Meanwhile, as Sophia, Wilde appears to be watery-eyed and childish, spending much of his time moaning, daydreaming, or helplessly tapping his foot. None of the protagonists seems capable of bloodshed, in the heart or elsewhere: when they talk, flirt or even kiss, there is nothing.

That Sophia is a morose wally is unfortunate, given the efforts made to strengthen her character. She is the play’s narrator, a conceit the dramatization doesn’t fully engage with, perhaps because her lack of agency means she doesn’t have much to say. In this adaptation, she is also Black, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner who, upon the death of her slaveholder father, was sent from Jamaica to England to be raised by her wealthy white grandfather. . We sometimes see how her skin color affects her life as a wealthy woman – puzzled glances cast in her direction at a garden party; obvious disgust on the part of staff at a roadside hostel – but this is a problem that feels like being picked up and put down on a whim.

None of this means that Tom Jones is without his pleasures. The supporting cast are a lavish repertoire of household names, many of which are cast perfectly. Fleet is ideal for a Squire Allworthy written here as a damp liberal, essentially good-hearted but morally too weak to combat the cruel iniquities of a society which gave him the prestige of a lawyer. Susannah Fielding is having fun as Mrs. Waters, who initially seems thoughtlessly excited, pointing her collarbones at any passing man, but soon proves to be kind, wise and delighted with her own intelligence and ability. Daniel Rigby serves up nearly all the laughs as Tom’s seedy, outraged sidekick Benjamin Partridge, while Felicity Montagu does quiet work in her double-edged scenes as Bridget, whose survival until the end of the he story is a simple and obvious improvement over the original. narrative.

Not Everyone Delivers: Alun Armstrong is cartoonish as Sophia’s grandfather, Squire Western, working with a script that doesn’t explore the conflict between his soppy adoration and his brutally misogynistic application of traditional marriage for status. Shirley Henderson’s Aunt Western is a chewy stew of quirky, celibate oddities. But Hannah Waddingham holds Episode Three together as the imperious, monstrous Lady Bellaston, jonesing for Tom’s youthful manliness in the hopes she can absorb him like an elixir of youth, and looking ready to bite her throat. head when he rejects her. The biggest laugh of the series comes when Lady B, her fear starting to ebb, is forced to hide behind a curtain and is then revealed, a picture of chaotic defiance.

Waddingham is a real presence, moving from sexy to funny to bitterly tragic with ease. But even she can’t make Lady Bellaston’s scenes with Tom sizzle, because he’s content to let her happen to him: like this version of his story, he politely wanders off aimlessly.

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