FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Tess Gill with Steven Adams’ versatile set with a blue theme, it’s one of those flexible gestural backdrops with cerulean-coloured furniture and a square piano seen from the front. Margaret Skeet and Kirsty Levett have feasted on costume and sumptuary; Patti Griffiths as ever on wigs. Maria Dunn has devised with Gill the daring but atmospheric use of orchestrally-arranged Beatles music. Beverley Grover directs and operates all lighting and sound design. Gary Andrews has worked hard on a sword fight. Till 7th July then at BOAT from 18-21 July.
Almost from the first you know this is a classic adaptation. Jessica Swale known for Bluestockings, Thomas Tallis, and Nell Gwynn, all Globe commissions, adapts brilliantly too. This 2014 one of Jane Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility crackles with dispatch. There’s improvised scenes with new witty asides and gags that never falter. You’ll hold your breath.
Swale also builds up the third sister Margaret as an aspiring naturalist more at home with the Durrells than Dashwoods. Mrs Dashwood and busybody Mrs Jennings are given rakish makeovers: so their silliness scintillates. At one point Mrs Jennings hopes the roguish anti-hero will show. ‘Willoughby coming?’ she quips. And there’s all those croquet balls flying over cliff-tops the gulls will mistake for their own eggs. And Margaret continually hatching creepies for stuffy ladies to scream at. Indeed there’s quite a bit of screaming.
Swale’s added so much you might fear for Austen, but it’s all in keeping and Swale lifts wholesale from a filleted dialogue. This crams in Austen but it lets the novel breathe dramatically.
Directed by Tess Gill with Steven Adams’ versatile set with a blue theme, it’s one of those flexible gestural backdrops with cerulean-coloured furniture and a square piano seen from the front. The backdrop is a succession of panels in angled tricolour: midnight blue, cerulean and grey. For some reason they’re pitched slightly forward or back during performance but this makes no difference whatsoever. In the foreground a yellow/green slant set do service for nature when a trio lean on them star-gazing. The excellent fittings and at one stage a chaise long, are economically all that’s needed. Margaret Skeet and Kirsty Levett have feasted on costume and sumptuary; Patti Griffiths as ever on wigs. Beverley Grover directs and operates all lighting and sound design. Gary Andrews has worked hard on a sword fight.
Maria Dunn has devised with Gill the daring but atmospheric use of orchestrally-arranged Beatles music with apposite titles for each moment dropped in everywhere (‘Girl’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’ ‘Lady Madonna’). There’s Handel ‘Did You see my lady weeping?’ and by the same singer Sarah Drew her own composition ‘To the Evening Star’ arranged by Nigel Newman. Drew is in fact Eleanor Dashwood here and Drew deserves praise for providing a composition sung by her onstage sister Marianne – a superb performance.
The story’s well known. On the death of Mr Dashwood his second wife Mrs Dashwood and their three daughters Eleanor (Sarah Drew), Marianne – a tearingly impulsive Katie Newman and Keziah Israel’s whooping Margaret are turned out of doors by Fanny Dashwood (Suzanne Buist, wonderfully chilly) the callous, mean wife of Mr Dashwood’s son by another marriage, John. Forced to beg favours they hole up on a Devonshire cottage near Exeter, there encountering a host of folk including two love interests for Marianne, one eclipsing the other.
Ironically, quiet Eleanor ‘s already fixed on that cruel wife’s eldest brother Edward Ferrars, wholly different from his sister, but because of his mother’s threats of disinheritance not able to act freely. There’s another reason too, a certain Miss Lucy Steele of Plymouth who doesn’t fetch up till halfway through, and played once again by Israel with a deliciously full Devon accent.
Drew, Newman and Israel are outstandingly front and centre. Drew’s quality of listening and stillness, quivering intensity kept in check, and final bursts of emotion are as moving as I’ve ever seen them portrayed.
Drew possesses authority and notably sets off Newman whose wildness is again nuanced, quicksilvery and tempered with a complete inhabiting of the role including moments of crises, even down to illness. She sings Drew’s song and others superbly. It should have drawn the applause reserved for a wedding pose later. Swale’s way off with the poetry though. Keats was still a schoolboy, and Blake was unheard of till the Pre-Raphaelites discovered him, even though other poets knew. There’s no harm in sticking with Austen’s choices.
Israel’s all madcap Gerry Durrell with her newts, crabs and owl pellets at teatime, but evincing shrewd quick sympathy, being far more observant than her tender age is credited with.
The opening scene as penned by Swale is so full of dispatch McLay’s Mrs Dashwood is already in black before her husband’s died. This scene will settle, though the premature black dress jars a bit. There’s such tight writing that grief and curiosity gel awkwardly, with shrillness here that later vanishes. McLay’s part is made by Swale to sound as if she’s a Marianne with even more extravagance, though a less frantic manner might offset this a little.
Neil Drew’s affecting as Edward Ferrars, the man doubly bund as we discover. His hesitancy, sudden decisiveness and above all his agonized hesitations mark this reading out with some distinction. Matthew Wyn-Davies’ John Willoughby is all a dashing cad can be, though with genuine feeling, too much a coward to declare his love for Marianne, rating his lifestyle more necessary, and leaving another girl in terrible trouble. And then there’s a Miss Grey. Wyn-Davies levels his voice from his high-toned flattery through an onstage swordfight when he cuts and runs, to the finally abject penitent where Wyn-Davies convinces us of his character’s crushed happiness.
Chris Gates starts hesitantly as the warm if slightly taciturn Colonel Brandon, but breaks through to an emotion and some power in the latter scenes. In the dumb show between him and Eleanor, there might be a little more chemistry as these two have a journey to make that needs a little more than shuffling music scores. It’s clear Gates builds in stature as he goes and he should be nearer top gear after the first night.
Gerry Wicks who later plays a grave doctor is superb too as the noisily bluff Sir John Middleton, all projection and presence but rightly so. Caroline Lambe as Mrs Jennings revels in he extra faux pas and shows off a noisily bustling character ideally, down to Swales additional puns and silliness you must see for yourself.
There’s fine work to from John Burnham as the long-suffering Mr Palmer married to Mrs Jennings’ daughter, as Mr Perks and Edward’s younger brother Robert Ferrars, a huntin’ shootin’squire who’s his mother’s favourite and is forgiven what his brother is not, and over the same woman. Becky Peake’s mostly pregnant Mrs Palmer explodes into vulgar life with aplomb and takes this to other smaller roles. Ella Niner plays heiress Miss Grey – with two tiny roles – with the right steeliness. Stephen Evans suffers as John Dashwood Fanny’s thousand cuts of meanness with studied collapse and a hint of someone who’d be far happier being kind but weakly surrendering to Buist’s splendidly nasty Fanny. Otherwise he plays the faithful servant Thomas too.
This is an adaptation to surprise and thrill you. Swale’s invaded openly and like a monarch as Dryden once put it of translations. she’s made it wholly hers and quintessentially Austen at the same time. The cast render it a delight.