Despite having studied English at Oxford University sometime in the last millennium, Jane Austen and I have never really had much to do with each other. I remember being told to read some Austen before crossing through those hallowed portals for my first term, so I chose Northanger Abbey because it was the shortest (no fool me). I can’t say it left much impression though, as my head was filled with drama and I would much sooner have read all the latest offerings by the playwriting movers and shakers of the late 1970s than the elegantly prosaic world of early 19th century Hampshire.
But isn’t it great when you get a crossover? The successful 2012 production of Mansfield Park by the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is touring again in 2013, and you need no further proof of Jane Austen’s enduring appeal than the sight of a packed Northampton Royal Theatre on a Tuesday night. There were even people in the Upper Circle. Briefly, ten year old Fanny Price is taken from her poor family to live with her richer relatives where she is well provided for but is the victim of condescension and is not allowed equal social standing with the rest of the household. From her lowlyish position she can observe the comings and goings of the youthful members of the family and their romantic attractions to the Crawfords and others. As time goes by, things go more and more Fanny’s way until by the end of the story she legitimately becomes the centre of the household. There’s definitely an element of “Ugly Duckling becomes Swan” in this tale.
This adaptation by Tim Luscombe is nicely structured and keeps the story going at a good pace – I really liked the way that the new characters for the next scene would enter and start talking before the old characters of the previous scene had left the stage, you felt there was no “downtime” at all – although at 2 hours 40 minutes it was perhaps a trifle on the long side. Mr Luscombe gives Lady Bertram a constant headache so she is never seen (an effective running joke) and eliminates a few other characters, including Julia, so that there are only three Bertram children. It’s cleverly constructed so that the actors can double up as both the Bertrams/ Crawfords, and the extended Price family. The simple design by Kit Surrey is effective enough to give an impression of delightful country living (whilst being eminently tourable) but occasionally it was a little confusing as to precisely where we were and precisely who the characters were.
Nevertheless, the production benefits from some very good performances. The heroine Fanny Price is played by Ffion Jolly, who absolutely looks the part and captures Fanny’s meekness and moral uprightness extremely well; her polite distaste for Henry Crawford and growing fondness for Edmund are also very enjoyable to watch. I really liked the performance of Laura Doddington as Mary Crawford; bright, cheery, optimistic and beautifully patronising to Fanny, and aggressively assertive with Edmund over his choice of career. She brought out all the comedy of the role whilst retaining the more serious and manipulative sides of her character too. Mary’s brother Henry is given a subtly smarmy presence by Eddie Eyre, you could pinpoint his voice somewhere between that of Robert Peston and Chris Barrie in The Brittas Empire. He’s nicely devious in his dalliances, although I’m not sure I entirely believed him when he started protesting his genuine new-found love for Miss Price.
Hats off to Geoff Arnold for taking on three roles and making each one very different and completely believable; the self-indulgent waster Tom, the sincere and well-meaning William, and, best of all, the toffee-nosed idiot Mr Rushworth, twitching with disapproval at the follies of youthful exuberance. Leonie Spilsbury is a superbly spoiled Maria with a touch of the Violet Elizabeth about her, and Pete Ashmore very convincing as the wannabe clergyman Edmund, suffering from a permanent bad hair day, who has to temper his affection for Miss Crawford with his deep-seated interest in modest decency. Richard Heap is a splendidly blustery Sir Thomas, laying down the law with stentorian tones, and Julie Teal superb as the viciously patronising Aunt Norris, begrudgingly offering succour to the less fortunate Fanny, figuratively wiping her feet on her as she goes.
It’s a very well put-together production, and makes for a very enjoyable evening. It’s not the best thing since sliced bread, but it absolutely does what it says on the tin.