Whenever I have a stomach ache, I cuddle up on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a blanket, and put on a Jane Austen TV adaptation. There is something in these DVDs and plays, and not necessarily in the books, that makes for a very comforting and cosy evening. Juliet Forster’s adaptation for Theatre By The Lake’s repertory season does not disappoint. I went into the theatre royal after a very bad day, and stepped out with a big ol’ grin on my face.
Austen’s writing is a concoction of drama and wit, which leads you to love and care for characters who initially seem two-dimensional. On the fact of it, sense and sensibility is a story about two sisters, one of whom is guided by her head, and one of whom is guided by her heart. A lot of the comedy in this production does come from these neat stereotypes. But it’s beautifully woven in with a deeper understanding of human nature that leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end.
The whole cast is strong, and the relationships believable, which is no mean feat given that Marianne has to fall totally in love within a single scene, and she has to do it twice. Romantic relationships are well acted across the board, but standout performances come from Sarah Kempton as Elinor and Alice Imelda as Marianne. Kempton’s portrayal is impressively versatile. For the most part, she maintains an Austen-esque subtlety and composure, but she also takes real risks with the character’s emotional range and her rare outbursts are some of the most affecting moments of the play. Imelda plays Marianne with grace, charm and verve. She has a good show of emotion and a beautiful singing voice, but I didn’t warm to her as much as I did to Elinor. Other highlights come from Karen Ascoe as Mrs Dashwood, whose acting is subtle yet expressive, and Christine Entwisle as Mrs Jennings, who is the biggest source of comedy, although I think she could have quickened the pace of her delivery a little.
In terms of direction, the use of space and movement is very well done. The furniture is sparse, but manages to form a whole host of different spaces, and its combination with projections, lights, electronic backdrops and an impressive custom built set, makes for really interesting atmospheres. The sparseness of the props also allows the actors to move in interesting ways on stage. I am impressed by the choreography, and I love the dynamic scene changes. They, along with the holes in the set, give you the sense that you are catching a glimpse of the characters’ life outside of the script, or the tittle-tattle of the outside world.
My one reservation is that at times, certain elements of the play feel overdone. Some shows of emotion are inappropriate for the period, and some confrontations are too intense. Likewise, sometimes men and women stand too close to one another in ways that feels improper for the time period. Here and there the music also sounds like a film soundtrack, although for the most part it suits the atmosphere well. These aspects take away from the tangy freshness of Austen and make it a little too cheesy for my taste. But all in all, this is a very well directed production that I found funny and moving. A lovely night out for anyone who likes a good period drama.
Sense & Sensibility played at the York Theatre Royal until 10 November. For more information and tickets, click here.