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Persuasion

by on 4 March 2022

Austentation

Persuasion

 by Jane Austen, adapted by Jeff James, with James Yeatman

Rose Original Productions, in association with Oxford Playhouse, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19th March

Review by Gill Martin

Spoiler alert: if you are expecting crinoline, ringlets and Regency ballrooms when Jane Austen reaches the stage hold onto your bonnets.  It’s more bikinis, blonde manes and disco action in this adaptation of Persuasion at Kingston’s Rose Theatre.

The romantic comedy has taken a leap from the 19th Century’s measured society to a riotous reimagining fit for the 21st.

The Austen classic gets a modern twist to appeal to an audience yet to discover her crisp wit and analysis of attitudes to women who, in her time, were written off as old maids if they were still unmarried at 27.  The author never married.  She was ‘an old maid’ till her death at the tragically young age of 41 while still writing her sublime prose.

Director Jeff James and James Yeatman adapted the novel for the stage production, which first saw the footlights at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, five years ago.

It’s delightfully exuberant and exhilarating, jollied along against a soundtrack featuring Frank Ocean, Dua Lipa and Cardi B.  Not quite Dirty Dancing but a nod to twerking and hip to hip action.  Penned in more rigid times of the early 1800s, polite society would have been reaching for the smelling salts to see this reimagining. 

Kingston Theatre audiences were more easy-going and ready to laugh at the absurdity of the very idea of marriage as the be all and end all of a young woman’s life.  ‘Farewell maidenhood,’ Elizabeth Elliott (played by Matilda Bailes in her confident debut) sighs as she opens an envelope she assumes contains a marriage proposal. How gutting to discover it’s a wedding invitation from her potential husband who has shunned her – for a younger model.

Finding a suitable suitor is paramount for Elizabeth and her sister Anne (Sasha Frost) who has been persuaded by her family not to marry her first love.  Now she is 27, a forlorn figure regretting that decision.  ‘Love ruined me.  It is a curse,’ she wails.

When Frederick Wentworth proposed to Anne eight years ago he could offer nothing but his love.  Her family pressured her to ditch a man without prospects and fortune.  But now Wentworth (Fred Fergus) is back. Rich, successful and handsome – and still single.  The now decorated naval Captain has become a serious catch.  When Fate brings the two face to face again, the electric attraction still sparks and Anne must face up to her past choice.

The script is witty and clever, brought briskly up to date.  There’s even a reference to a party – dismissed as ‘not a party. It’s a gathering’. 

Costume supervisor Jemima Penny creates a colourful line-up of outfits from sequinned onesie – which would not look out of place in RuPaul’s Drag Race – to skimpy shimmering bikini for the beach scene set in Lyme Regis.

An inventive stage doubles as a neon-lit disco dance floor and a foaming sea spume of soapsuds for bathers’ frolics.

While the quest for true love drives the action we’re left to ponder whether marriage is all it’s cracked up to be. Anne and Elizabeth’s sister Mary (Helen Cripps) is very married, with in-laws she loathes, a care-worn wife with an inattentive husband, Charles (Dorian Simpson).

‘Men find a way to get out of anything disagreeable,’ she complains of the man who prefers shooting to household duties.  Their lively young son Samuel (Daniel Aiden Matembe, making his professional stage debut) is a scene stealer.

Director Jeff James sees Austen as relevant today as in her time. ‘Jane Austen’s central question is how you should organise your life: how to balance competing demands like sex, money and family.

‘It’s obvious that we still grapple with these tensions today…trying to decide if they should get married or get back on Tinder, or if they should try for a baby or freeze their eggs, or if they love someone enough to share a life with them.

‘More than any writer before or since, Austen skewered the word “love” like a collector pinning up a butterfly, and showed how the word serves as a cover for a multitude of very difficult choices.

‘The joy of the novel is that Anne is given a second chance to choose what kind of life she wants.’

Last word to the Rose Theatre’s artistic director Christopher Haydon who says of the adaptation of Persuasion, ‘It’s funny.  It’s sexy.  It’s gorgeous.’   He’s right on at least two counts.

Gill Martin, March 2022

Photography by The Other Richard

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