Writer: Tim Luscombe from Jane Austen
Director: Colin Blumenau
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
A couple of hundred years may have passed since Jane Austen penned Mansfield Park but, despite the period costume and one would hope dated social customs, the struggles faced seem oddly topical. Romantic intrigue, social stigmata and a desire for self-improvement resonate as much today as when written.
Tim Luscombe’s new adaptation keeps the flavour of Austen’s original while maintaining a swift pace. Austen’s novel is always respected but it never overwhelms.
In all honesty Mansfield Park isn’t one of Austen’s strongest plot lines, there’s lots of exposition and little actual action but the unravelling of story arcs does provide plenty of dramatic twist and turns.
Young Fanny Price comes from a poor branch of the family and so there is something of a culture shock as she is taken in by her rich Aunt and Uncle at the stately Mansfield Park. There are elements of the Cinderella story as initially Fanny is treated something of a second class cousin, reduced to menial tasks and hidden from the Society elite. Romantic entanglements don’t take long to surface with Fanny forced to hide her true feelings towards trainee cleric Edmund. Add in a bit of class war, a pinch of adultery and financial intrigue and things get somewhat complex.
Colin Blumenau’s production doesn’t always help clarity for those unfamiliar with the original book. Extensive doubling of characters can make for confusion, although the changes are handled well by the versatile company.
There’s a strong central performance from Ffion Jolly as Fanny, rarely off stage and commanding attention, mixes the independence of a young woman happy to tread her own path with an undercurrent of buried emotions. As her undeclared romantic interest, Pete Ashmore impresses as Edmund as does Geoff Arnold making his professional debut with triple characters of Tom, Mr Rushmore and William Price.
Kit Surrey’s simple yet effective set of wooden verandas, with period backdrop gauzes provides a highly adaptable backdrop, well suited to the Georgian venue, allowing for quick transitions between scenes.
It’s all very well done, and the two and a half hours zip past but there’s a sense that, despite the skill of writer, director and company there’s little of actual substance here. Austen creates some vivid characters and sparkling dialogue but it’s hard to really care about them or fully emotionally engage. Does it matter? Probably not. Fans of Austen and period costume drama in general will lap it up, as the large audience on press night will attest. Will it bring in new audiences to the theatre? That’s another question but, in these financially challenging times, you can’t blame a venue for playing safe. For a couple of hours of pleasant gentle drama, though, it does exactly what it says on the tin.