Pros: Lovely elements of design and a hard-working cast
Cons: Fails to capture Austen’s appeal
Our heroine is the upright and compassionate Anne Elliot (Ceri-Lyn Cissone), whose youthful romance with dashing sailor Frederick Wentworth (Jason Ryall) was kiboshed by her family’s disapproval on the grounds that he had no fortune. Heartbroken, Anne severed the relationship, but is haunted by ghosts of what might have been.
Thank goodness for romantic fiction, because rather than disappear forever, Wentworth goes to sea and returns a rich man. Unfortunately, he’s harbouring the misapprehension that he was rejected by Anne because she stopped loving him. Thus their reunion is a frosty affair as neither is in a hurry to reveal that they’re still in love with each other.
Around this protracted “Will they/Won’t they?” narrative we’re invited to care about the rest of the Elliot clan, who are obliged to rent out the family mansion and slum it in Bath, plus a range of secondary characters encapsulating the social spectrum from worthy working class to insufferable snob. The multi-roleing cast do their best to differentiate these characters in manner as well as costume (they must have been busy behind the two flats that serve as wings) but the effect is sometimes confusing.
Austen’s story is obviously of its time, but that’s been the case for a couple of centuries now. Part of the novelist’s enduring fascination is the wit with which she depicts, satirises and reveals the truth of her characters. Like Dickens, her work is catnip to dramatists eager to mine a rich literary seam. But whereas Dickens glories in fantastical characters and fiendishly contrived plotting, Austen’s quieter but no less impressive legacy depends upon our continued appreciation of the sophisticated irony with which she manipulates her players and teases out her storylines. The deftness of her prose can transpose to drama with delightful effect, as multiple TV and film adaptations attest, but as committed as this production is, it doesn’t succeed in capturing Austen’s deceptively light but masterful touch. And without that, one has to wonder to whom this show will appeal.
Such humour as there is is provided by Lucinda Turner, who plays all her roles for laughs and has an enjoyably flagrant stage presence. The capable cast are also fine musicians, and there’s some lovely close harmony singing towards the end. The sweeping ramp that dominates the stage is rather gorgeous, and becomes the Cobb at Lyme Regis during a crucial scene. Other design elements including some imaginative use of parasols are where this show’s most interesting achievements are to be found.
The Playground Theatre is a charming new venue forming an oasis of culture in the wilds of west London’s Latimer Road. A roomy and re-configurable space, it feels as if great things could happen here, even if this particular production doesn’t rise to any remarkable level.
It’s not the venue’s fault that press night was the hottest April day ever, but I hope they’ll be looking into ways to combat the heat before the summer season, as it rendered a long show distractingly uncomfortable.
Writer: Jane Austen (adapted by Stephanie Dale)
Director: Kate McGregor
Booking Until: At The Playground Theatre until 28th April then touring.