Thomas Hardy's first great heroine Bathsheba Everdene burst on to the pages of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874 as a fictional creation years ahead of her time.

Independent, self-confident, free-thinking and brave, she was determined to make her mark in a man's world, while permitting no fewer than three men to try to make their mark with her. She is a wonderful character for the stage, which is no doubt why Hardy quickly produced a dramatised version of the novel himself, though it was never a success.

Now along come English Touring Theatre, with a brilliantly crafted presentation of the story that very definitely is a hit. It is packing in the crowds this week at the Playhouse.

The creative force for the enterprise is supplied by director Kate Saxon and adapter Mark Healy, who previously collaborated on a successful play fashioned from The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles's homage to Hardy and his world.

They and their 13 actors have produced a gripping, pacy production that manages to compress all the incident and atmosphere of the great novel into a little over two-and-a-half hours.

The powerful momentum of the play is maintained in part by the device — more usually seen in film and television — of sometimes allowing two scenes to play simultaneously.

The players take turns to speak or be silent as the action segues from one group of actors to the other. Folk songs and dances lend impetus to the drama, too.

It would be hard to imagine a better Bathsheba than Rebecca O'Mara, who is able to provoke both sympathy and admiration for the character.

The difficulties that follow her accession to a valuable 1,000 acre farm in Weatherbury are in part an accident of fortune. But her rash decision to 'go it alone', both over the management of the estate and her domestic situation, cause troubles of their own.

A rich and attractive single woman will never be short of suitors. Bathsheba is no exception. First comes the shepherd Gabriel Oak (Phil Cheadle) — his name speaking solid dependability.

Next there's the buttoned-up neighbouring farmer William Boldwood (Stephen Billington), and finally, and disastrously, there is the dangerously alluring womaniser, Sgt Frank Troy (Adam Croasdell).