This is an adaptation of the romantic novel by Jane Austen, adapted for the stage by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham. First published in 1811, Ms Austen's themes are as relevant today as they ever were, so there is still much here that audiences can relate to, especially as this well-constructed adaptation keeps the action and storyline speeding along nicely.
The Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor have fallen on hard times. Their father has just died and their brother has inherited the estate. That means the sisters have to move out to a cottage situated many miles away in Devonshire and owned by a rich relative, Aunt Jennings. Before they leave for Devon, Elinor meets Edward Ferrars and immediately falls for him – romantically speaking, that is.
Once in Devon, Marianne meets Colonel Brandon, a former army officer who, though rather older than Marianne, immediately falls in love with her. But Marianne also meets the younger Willoughby who she immediately falls for. It looks like Marianne will be married as she gives Willoughby a lock of her hair and we believe there is an 'understanding' between them, as do the other characters. But Willoughby suddenly leaves for London, and does not reply to Marianne's many long letters. And when Mrs Jennings takes the sisters off for a visit to London and they see Willoughby at a ball, he treats her as though he had never promised her anything, and sends a letter the next day to confirm it. Marianne is distraught, gets ill and is nursed back to health by Colonel Brandon and Elinor, who also has to face disappointment regarding Edward.
Helen Tennison's production is both creative and inventive. Ellan Parry's design is economical, yet intelligent and thoughtful, for example using washing lines to suggest the garden. And picture frames are used to highlight characters, and indeed the cast are all 'framed' as we enter the theatre, and end-up in a similar fashion. Benedict Davies's fine musical compositions add appropriate atmosphere, and Matt Eaton's excellent sound design is detailed and complex.
A cast of just 6 cover the main characters as well as menservants and maids. Emma Fenney is a near-perfect Elinor – sensible and intelligent, charming yet reserved. And Bobbi O'Callaghan is almost equally perfect as the more impetuous, more daring Marianne. These two are the mainstays of the story, and are extremely well-cast. Lainey Shaw is the bustling, motherly, Aunt Jennings who loves nothing better than a good gossip, preferably about a scandal. Though the audience warmed to her good-humoured fussing, I found her constant dabbing of her chest with a handkerchief irritatingly overdone. Francesca Wilding also provides some humour as well as intrigue as Edward's secret fiancé, Lucy Steele.
Jason Eddy certainly has the essential physical characteristics to make a rakish, dashing and devilishly handsome Willoughby. And he really impresses at the end of the piece when he confesses, fuelled by drink, that he really did love Marianne. James Burton has the onerous task of playing both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars. It is a tall order because the characters are so different. He starts with Edward, presenting something of a comic character, rather than a diffident, shy and reserved one. This resulted in the audience laughing each time he appeared as Edward, and initially spilt over into his portrayal of the Colonel as well. This posed a very real, dramatic problem because I simply could not believe that the ever-sensible Elinor would fall in love with the Edward that Mr Burton describes and, for me, that rather spoilt both the development of that part of the story as well as the resolution.
However, the audience were far more generous and forgiving and loved this play - they applauded enthusiastically both when Marianne got carried away by Colonel Brandon when she has agreed to marry him, and when Elinor accepted Edward's marriage proposal. Well, we all love happy endings, don't we?