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Mansfield Park – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: Jane Austen

Adapter: Tim Luscombe

Director: Colin Blumenau

Reviewer: Mary Tapper

[Rating:4]

Accustomed as we are these days to excellent period drama on mainstream TV, is it possible to capture the essence and heart of a book like Mansfield Park in an evening at the theatre, or does the format leave us wanting more?

Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny, a young girl living in a relatively poor household who comes to live with her rich Uncle, Aunt and cousins at Mansfield Park. Removed from the brother she loves and rather shell shocked by the different way of life, it follows her tale as she tries to work out where her affections lie and how to judge the characters around her.

The play is cleverly written, with snippets of conversation taking place between characters in small groups on stage at the same time. Lighting is used to highlight each conversation so that the flow of the piece is quick and easy to follow. The set is very simple, a cloth backdrop giving the impression of the large Mansfield Park and a seating area and walkway to frame the action. This simple staging is slightly disappointing but means that all the focus is firmly placed on the acting, which is top class. Characters have been very well cast here, with the whole ensemble playing their rôles with confidence and subtlety. Fanny, portrayed with grace and charm by Ffion Jolly, exudes just the right combination of shy hesitancy and principled determination. Karen Ascoe is wonderful as her catty Aunt, Mrs Norris, and it is a pleasure to see a nuanced performance from Kristin Atherton as the sparky neighbour, Mary Crawford. Male rôles are equally well cast, with Pete Ashmore proving a serious and caring Edmund, while Samuel Collins throws himself wholeheartedly into the rôle of charmer Henry Crawford. With only eight actors in total, parts are doubled with excellent effect and the story bowls along with fluid movement and minimal set changes.

Costumes are well made and colour is used well to distinguish characters and help us follow the frequent scene changes with ease. Great care has been taken with the physical movements of all the actors and this helps with the doubling of parts: Leonie Spilsbury effortlessly depicts both a restrained grand lady and a more lowly country bumpkin of a girl, adjusting her walk and manners with ease.

The adaptation works well throughout, although occasionally we skip several weeks or months, making characters transformations a little rushed. This is only a small criticism though, as, by and large, the story is charmingly and effectively told and the final scenes are believable and full of heart.

So an absorbing evening at the theatre with excellent acting and a good story to be told. The production, although simple and a little rushed at times, rises above the constraints of the short time and provides a lovely adaptation. Charming.

Runs until 24th November

Picture: Mike Kwasniak

 

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