The enormous success of the recent TV adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford doubtless encouraged producer Ian Dickens to revive Martyn Coleman’s 60-year-old stage version of the novel. His talented and hard-working company of actors must have been pondering the vagaries of taste as they surveyed the modest, not to say meagre, audience ranged before them in the stalls at Cheltenham on Monday evening.

They stayed away in droves that night as a consequence, presumably, of the day of the week and the time of the year. But I suspect, too, that some Cranford enthusiasts were put off by the fact that they had ‘seen it before’ — and seen it done, they supposed, as well as it could be. Whatever the reason, they missed a polished production (also directed by Dickens) that perfectly puts across the gentle humour of this much-loved book.

The novel is short by Victorian standards, and certainly by those of Charles Dickens in whose periodical Household Words Cranford first appeared in instalments from 1851. Gaskell, incidentally, pays tribute to her mentor by making a number of references to The Pickwick Papers, said to be a favourite of Cranford’s affable doctor Mr Hoggins (Ben Roberts). This counts, surely, as one of the earliest examples of product placement.

Coleman’s play, however, is of Shakespearian length at close on three hours, even though the action of the novel is curtailed and a number of key characters eliminated. Many alterations are made in order that activity can remain focused throughout on the home of the principal character, the kind and generous, Miss Matty (Kirsten Cooke), the daughter of the town’s late rector.

This lovingly tended property (elegantly created by designers Alan Miller Bunford and Ian Marston) is the centre of activity for the town’s female-dominated society — none more dominant among them than the terrifying Mrs Jamieson. It is with the arrival of her sister-in-law (an event roughly halfway through the novel) that the play begins. That the visitor, the Dowager Countess of Glenmire (Judy Buxton), possesses a title provokes agonised debate on correct forms of address and aspects of etiquette between Miss Pole (Karen Ford) and the scarcely less snooty Miss Barker (Paula Stockbridge) and Mrs Forrester (Susan Skipper).

Lady Glenmire, having been sedulously segregated from Cranford society by Mrs Jamieson (to the fury of the other ladies), eventually insists on an introduction. She turns out to be a hard-up, utterly unstuffy, Scots-accented woman whom everybody falls for — and especially Mr Hoggins.

This pair’s marriage (a secret one here, rather than following the publicly acknowledged engagement of the novel) supplies a major ingredient of the story. So, too, do the nuptials of Miss Matty’s maid — the initially doltish, later devoted Martha (Alicia Grace Turrell) — and her good-sort swain, Jem Heard (Jake Hendriks).

All the action is framed, as in the book, by the observations of narrator Mary Smith, looking back 30 years on her visits to Miss Matty. That younger self (Isla Carter) is also seen playing a diplomatic junior role in the heady dramas of Cranford society.

Cranford continues in Cheltenham until Saturday night. Box office: 01242 572573 ( The production is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, from March 14 to 18 (box office: 01753 853 888 —