Edinburgh Fringe 2023
In Oxia Theatre’s production of Gail Louw’s 2017 play ‘The Mitfords’, Emma Wilkinson Wright plays four of the six legendary Mitford sisters. There is Unity Mitford, known best as Hitler’s girlfriend. Also is Diana Mitford, later Diana Mosley. Diametrically opposed is the communist Jessica Mitford, who runs away to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Rounding it off is Nancy, the writer. This play sees them navigate World War II and its aftermath, putting their sisterly bond to its ultimate test.
There is no way to begin a review of ‘The Mitfords’ without first writing about Emma Wilkinson Wright. Her performance is what makes this piece worth seeing for more than the just your average armchair Mitford fanatic. As Nancy Mitford, the author of ‘The Pursuit of Love’, she spits witticisms in husky tones. Diana Mitford, who becomes the wife of Oswald Mosley and champions the British Union of Fascists, is a dark sort of sparkly who wouldn’t be too out of place in Downton Abbey. It is the other two sisters, however, who are the beating heart of this story. Unity and Jessica, the Nazi and the communist, are forever ripped apart by their fundamental differences.
As Unity Mitford, the Nazi wannabe who coquettishly waits for Hitler to notice her as though he is a teen heartthrob, Wilkinson displays a fluid naiveté that never goes so far as to excuse her politics. Jessica Mitford is more down to earth, speaking in a less affected way than the others, and allowing us at least one Mitford we might be able to identify with as she forgoes her privileged life to join her comrades in the Spanish Civil War. When Unity’s “dear Jessica” no longer speaks to her because of her connections to the Führer, we understand why, but Wilkinson’s acting allows us to feel sympathy if not empathy for childlike Unity.
Because those moments had such genuine connection, it sometimes felt like paring down six sisters to four wasn’t quite enough. The play is incredibly researched and thorough in its information, but the story is often sacrificed in order to get all the facts in. A bit more breathing room would make it more easily digestible to those in the audience who are not up to scratch on their Mitford miscellanea. That being said, the moments we spend more time in, such as the story of the death of Jessica’s first child juxtaposed with Diana’s joy at finally marrying Oswald, is inspired and affecting. The blocking is helpful in keeping the Mitfords straight, as everyone has their place on the stage. Some of the direction felt like a bit of a red herring; upon entering, we were greeted with sound from news clips of current events. It is easy to connect this to the politics of the Mitfordian era, but this aspect of the show is never referred to again. The performance is also bookended by reading from Unity’s unpublished autobiography, but why it is her story that has this honor is unclear.
‘The Mitfords’ gets across why these women have held such fascination for so many years, even if it is sometimes an information overload. The play will make you want to learn more about its subjects, and Emma Wilkinson Wright’s phenomenal performance that makes this show particularly gripping.