As someone who has a long-standing aversion to mawkish period dramas, it was with trepidation that I went to see an adaptation of a staple of the ubiquitous genre: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Two hours later, I emerged utterly intoxicated by the classic tale of the Dashwood sisters’ romantic entanglements; memories of tiresome, bonnet-laden TV productions all but banished.
The success of this energetic staging lies in its wonderfully irreverent tone. Austen’s occasionally stifling sentimentality and self-indulgence is relegated to the background; the focus shifted instead to her colourful characterisations and spirited prose. A cast of only six has, rather fortuitously, forced writers Roger Parsley and Andy Graham to abridge the original text significantly, and the resulting narrative maintains the essence of Austen’s debut novel, whilst simultaneously affording it a new lease of life.
By concentrating on the essential elements of the siblings’ parallel stories, the play manages to avoid the somewhat out-dated contexts of Georgian propriety and social convention. These strands are given the wry treatment they deserve, becoming a source of hilarity, rather than an obstacle to a modern audience’s sympathies.
Consequently, the far more interesting and insightful exploration of the two sisters’ contrasting emotional journeys has an authenticity that previous film productions, which seem more obsessed with elaborate costumes than plot, have often lacked.
The ensemble cast are responsible for much of the play’s creative power. James Burton – impressively alternating between two roles – brings us an aloof and amusingly uptight Colonel Brandon, and a laissez-faire, quietly charming Edward Ferrars. Bobbi O’Callaghan and Emma Fenney provide sparkling central performances as the sensible, pragmatic Elinor and the impulsive, passionate Marianne. Neither character is overplayed – their eponymous signature traits seem truly natural, making it easy to empathise with their relative heartaches. Undoubtedly the star of the show is Lainey Shaw’s ebullient Aunt Jennings, who wafts in and out of the action; a magnificent blend between Hattie Jacques in a Carry On film and Miriam Margolyes in, well, any film.
Director Helen Tennison makes good use of the Rosemary Branch’s intimate space. Empty picture frames are held around the motionless cast at various moments, providing an effective and rather literal framing device, and other innovations, such as the characters bouncing up-and-down to simulate a carriage ride, add to the relaxed, breezy atmosphere. Light and shadow are cleverly utilised to artificially expand the tiny performance area, and rather miraculously, there is even the capacity for a brief dance.
There is more laughter than tears, and Austen devotees may ultimately find the play rather too frivolous, but therein lies its charm. By releasing itself from the shackles of a straightforward adaptation, this refreshing production manages to enrapture and entertain without eroding the flair and brilliance of the original book. Television executives take note: this is how you do Austen in the twenty-first century.
Sense and Sensibility is showing at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until Sunday 19 February.
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