Far From The Madding Crowd, Gala Theatre, Durham.

CONDENSING this epic Thomas Hardy novel into a play of a reasonable length must have been quite a task for Ali Gorton, who adapted, designed and directed this production for Middle Ground Theatre Company.

She succeeds in retaining the story's leisurely pace - if anything, it is too leisurely at times - and its rural charm.

The plot centres on farm owner Bathsheba Everdene, who, perhaps because all the other village women are complete simpletons, is something of a man magnet.

She wins the heart of first farmer-turned-shepherd Gabriel Oak, played by former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry, then shy Mr Boldwood (ex-Eastender and Hollyoaks star Ross Davidson), and finally, duplicitous Sergeant Francis Troy.

It's a case of third time lucky, as she falls for Sgt Troy hook, line and sinker.

Unfortunately, he turns out to be the worst possible choice, and she is punished for her heartless treatment of her two more suitable suitors by having her heart broken.

All this is set against a backdrop of a farming community struggling to survive storms and various sheep-related emergencies.

If this sounds dull, it probably is in parts, but welcome comic relief is provided by country bumpkins Jan Coggan and Joseph Poorgrass.

The accents are sometimes dodgy - more Wisconsin than Wessex - but generally, this does not detract.

I was, however, a bit puzzled by Ross Davidson's stubborn Scottishness amid the ooh aarhs.

An entertaining show, if a bit ponderous.

* Runs until Saturday. Box office 0191-332 4041.

Published: 20/11/2003