Review by Naomi Lillian Webb
Is it possible for there to be anything so delightful as a few hours of live period drama on a summer’s evening? I do not believe so! Directed by Elena Mortimer, Studio Theatre Club present Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with charming, respectful faithfulness.
Sense and Sensibility follows the fate of Mrs Dashwood and her two eligible daughters, Elinor, and Marianne, in their pursuit of love and future happiness following the death of their father and subsequent rejection by a miserly half-brother, John, and his selfish wife, Fanny. Prior to leaving Sussex, steadfast Elinor appears to be set on marriage to Edward Ferrars, although the course of true esteem never did run smooth, and much will be exposed to threaten this future. The three women move to a cottage in Devonshire at the insistence of Mrs Dashwood’s kindly relative, Sir John Middleton. Once in Devonshire, Middleton introduces the family to Colonel Brandon who is immediately attracted to Marianne, although she does not return his affection. A chance interaction leads to Marianne falling in love with the dashing Willoughby, who apparently shares her effusive sensibilities and desires. Willoughby is unexpectedly called away to London, which devastates poor Marianne. However, Mrs Jennings (the mother-in-law of Sir John Middleton) offers to take both Dashwood girls to London for an extended stay. Marianne writes to Willoughby and is disappointed by his lack of response. When the girls bump into him at a ball, Willoughby snubs Marianne, subsequently confessing to being engaged to another. Meanwhile, all is not well with Elinor; Lucy Steele (another relative of Mrs Jennings) confesses to her secret long-term engagement to Edward Ferrars (with whom Elinor is in love). Heartbroken Marianne falls dangerously ill and returns to Devonshire to recuperate, whereupon the intricacies of both sisters’ predicaments are gradually unwoven. All’s well that ends well with happy settlements for both girls, although the route taken could not have been predicted by either.
The play is exceptionally well cast. Francesca Richards cuts a strong and stable figure as Elinor Dashwood, acting as an endless support and restraint to both her younger sister and mother, whilst also showing immense versatility through transitional release of emotion in the latter scenes. Sreya Rao is equally tenacious as the young, creative, bold, and determined, Marianne. Her joy upon falling in love is palpable and subsequent heartbreak painfully raw. The two girls interact well together, conversation flowing with fondness and a natural confidence.
Kath Leighton holds the part of Mrs Dashwood very well, appearing extremely supportive throughout. Her subtle expressions and interpretations of phrasing add additional depth to the character which is so often missed on the stage.
Colonel Brandon’s melancholy, yet hopeful nature is carried by Jamie Mortimer. Charlie Vicary is so remarkable in his portrayal of Willoughby that I found myself feeling sorry for a character I regard as one of the most revoltingly duplicitous in historical fiction, and to whom I have always imagined taking immense pleasure in delivering a strongly worded verbal takedown! This is quite the testament to Charlie’s nuanced performance.
Ross McGookin brought an unexpected sweetness to the role of Edward Ferrars, including amusingly underplayed internal, non-verbal struggles. Sir John Middleton is jovial, gracious, and well-meaning in the hands of Ben Winters, a welcome relief after we are introduced to John and Fanny Dashwood (Brian Mackenwells and Lindsay Rolland). The latter’s manipulative and uncharitable nature feeds into the intellectual inferiority of her husband. These two succeed in bringing a darkness to the lives of the Dashwood girls and widowed mother, despite the relative brevity of their appearance.
Mrs Jennings’ unrelenting appetite for meddlesome gossip is quirkily characterised by Mina Katouzian. Fiona Miller as Lucy Steele is friendly, but secretly scheming in her friendship with Elinor, and even Nigel Tait’s unfortunately brief appearance as Mr Dashwood is filled with passionate concern.
Set design is minimal, with much being left to the imagination. This is no bad thing, as set changes (minimal as they are) in no way disrupt the action. The desperation of the situation the Dashwood women find themselves in upon the death of their father is heightened by the starkness of the set, contrasting with the warm reception they come to find upon their move to Devonshire. The same objects (chiefly chairs and a sofa) are used in varying locations to signify different internal settings. This also serves to communicate the nature of high-born ladies’ lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which seems to have consisted of rather too much time spent in one drawing room or another, and little else! Outdoor walks and picnics are expressed simply but clearly, through soundscapes and lighting.
The costume choices are equally unobtrusive, although the more outwardly emotional or reckless a character is, the more striking their outfits appear: a clever touch. Willoughby’s scarlet jacket and filigree waistcoat contrasts markedly with Colonel Brandon’s demure garb. Though of course this is only to be expected, given the latter’s advanced age of 35 (“advanced” according to the young Marianne Dashwood, that is)!
I can only picture this production going from strength to strength over the course of the run, as the actors settle into exploring their roles with an audience. Studio Theatre Club’s production of Sense and Sensibility is a must, not only for those who are already fans of Austen, but anyone who might be persuaded to enjoy an evening of ironical humour and surprisingly relatable social commentary. This performance has everything one could wish for in an Austen adaptation, barring the seemingly ubiquitous historical billowy wet shirt competition; something which I think we can all happily forego (despite the current weather).
Tickets for this light, convivial show are available online, or on the door until this Saturday (the 25th of June).