Mansfield Park

Tue 20th – Sat 24th November 2012

reviews

Catherine Coffey

at 23:20 on 20th Nov 2012

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I can honestly say that 'Mansfield Park' is my least favourite Austen novel, and not just in a “well-it’s-quite-good-but-I-prefer-Emma” way, rather in an “I-really-do-not-see-the-point-in-that-damp-squib-Fanny-Price” way. My expectations as I entered the Oxford Playhouse tonight were, therefore, not particularly high, but even had they been I have no doubts that this Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds Production would have blown me away.

Although a long-standing Austen fan, as I have already said, Mansfield Park does not generally court much favour with me, but having seen this adaptation for the stage I very much feel I can return to the book with a reinvigorated fervour, as an encounter with Tim Luscombe’s “adapted” heroine leads me to believe the younger me merely missed the opportunities he has seized upon to properly bring the true, opinionated Fanny to life.

The play is witty and perfectly-paced, if missing one or two aspects of the original plot which I would have liked to see remain, but, as Luscombe points out, as much as ‘it’s hard cutting Jane Austen...a play is a very practical thing’ and the skill with which he has adapted the novel is really only to be lauded.

Witty, fast-paced dialogue is matched in this production by witty, fast-paced and versatile actors, a leading-cast of only eight playing fifteen speaking parts. Geoff Arnold’s ability to seamlessly switch from the (pre-reform) libertine Tom Bertram, to the awkward and laughable Mr Rushworth, to the honest and worthy William Price is particularly impressive and perfectly fulfils Luscombe’s hope that ‘the fun is had by knowing it’s the same actor but in seeing the transformation’.

The comic star of the play is undoubtedly Karen Ascoe in her role as the indefatigable Mrs Norris; whether frustrating her brother-in-law (excellently played by Richard Heap, who perfectly embodies the out-of-touch patriarch slowly realising the world is changing around him in a most confusing manner) with constant nagging, scrounging grouse eggs from Mr Rushworth’s Sotherton Estate, or indulging in her favourite past-time of bullying Fanny, there is not a dull moment with Mrs Norris (incidentally, also my favourite character in the book). I do not know if the more-than-passing resemblance to Downton Abbey’s less vindictive but equally frustrating Mrs Crawley is purposeful or not but it certainly added to my appreciation and enjoyment of the role.

Mrs Norris’ favoured niece, Maria Bertram, is ably played by a marvellous Leonie Spilsbury, who has perfectly nailed the requisite portrayal of a combination of spoilt little girl and avaricious young woman, and who also gave a thoroughly enjoyable and lively portrayal of Susan Price.

The Crawford siblings are an absolute dream; ambitious, amorous, camp, mischievous but not malevolent, Kristin Atherton and Samuel Collings are a perfect pairing. Although their motives are, as in the novel, generally questionable to say the least, the black-and-white depiction of the brother and sister as evil incarnate that I have seen in several recent adaptations is pleasingly absent, and the audience can not help but warm to both characters, even if inevitably siding with Fanny on a final judgement.

Both in the book and in the majority of adaptions I have seen, regardless of the lack of nuance in portraying the Crawfords, I have always found myself decidedly on their side as opposed to that of Edmund and Fanny, finding the latter duo simply far too dull. In this production, however, Pete Ashmore and Ffion Jolly demonstrate a far more human and endearing side to both than I have previously encountered; Edmund is still rather too slow on the uptake, but he now slowly comes to decision with distinctive charm and panache, while Fanny, as already mentioned, finally seems to have a real voice, even if much of, to again quote Lusombe, ‘her virtue is often best evinced by her standing mute’. That Jolly managed to insert such interest into the act of ‘standing mute’ is a true attribute to her acting ability.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this production of Mansfield Park to anyone: be they die-hard fan, sceptic or stranger to the original novel, any and every theatre-goer would be a fool to miss out on the opportunity to pass such an entertaining evening.

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Ella Bucknall

at 00:28 on 21st Nov 2012

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It may be said that the undertaking of adapting an Austen novel is an almost impossible task. It certainly seems hard to imagine how to emulate through dialogue alone all the subtleties of satire and irony in Austen’s narrative style. However, Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Mansfield Park, a production by the ‘Theatre Royal Bury St Edmond’, is charming and genuinely captures Austen’s wonderful comedy and depth.

At the interval, the lady sitting next to me – who had been muttering to her husband, chewing Éclairs, and, most distractingly, letting her volatile stomach roar throughout the entire first half – asked: “Are you enjoying this?” When I replied “yes, very much” she proceeded to tell me that it was “the most boring play I have ever seen.” Thankfully for me, she decided to leave for the second half.

Perhaps the gentleness and simplicity of the production wasn’t flashy enough for her. Perhaps the sometimes understated comedy of the interchanges between characters and the witty handling of power imbalances weren’t slapstick enough for her. Perhaps there were too few jazz-hands. In any case, the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy Colin Blumenau’s production of Mansfield Park as much as I did.

The set is simple: long curtains with prints of 19th century scenes (gardens, horses and carts etc.) drape down behind a simple wooden veranda. The music is tasteful and apt with a harpsichord chiming in the interval and for dance-scenes. In fact, all the dance-scenes are delightfully directed. We are first introduced to dance in the show when Mr Rushworth – ridiculous, bumbling Mr Rushworth, played outstandingly by novice Geoff Arnold – dances with Maria Bertram, kicking his (prized) long legs in a most ludicrous fashion.

The entire cast work well as an ensemble and all who play dual roles do so very well. However, it is the specifically comic characters who generally get the most laughs from the audience. Mr Rushworth, as mentioned, is portrayed so hilariously that I was sad to see the back of him in the second half. Mrs Norris, crude, vulgar and deliciously detestable, is performed perfectly by Karen Ascoe as a true Austen eccentric. The play within the play, ‘Lovers’ Vows’ also provokes much hilarity. Kristin Atherton, playing Mary Crawford, gets her fair share of laughs too, especially peaking in moments of sexual jealousy. If anything, however, Kristin’s Mary was a little too likeable, despite her love of money, to be rejected so decidedly by Edmund Bertram. Bur the eventual proposal of Edmund to our heroine, Fanny Price, is inevitable and it is performed so nervously that it gives the audience a final surge of amusement.

The production is not merely comical however. It would not be truly Austen-inspired without some exploration of the crucial balance between folly and sense. Our heroine, Fanny, played by Ffion Jones, is a model of moderation throughout the play. Ffion is not overshadowed in the production, despite Fanny’s passivity (“I was quiet but I wasn’t blind”) and she manages to accurately embody the modest ideal of a woman who is “almost as fearful of praise as other women are of neglect”.

Pete Ashmore’s portrayal of Edmund is endearing and Leonie Spilsbury does an admirable job as both spoiled Maria Bertram and unrefined Susan Price. There is an excellent dynamic between brother and sister, Mary and Henry Crawford, and Samuel Collings plays the indulgent gentleman wonderfully. I was a little less convinced, however, by his professions of love to Fanny. Nevertheless, these moments are arguably intended to be insincere in this sense. I also, however, found his capriciousness, as well as Sir Thomas Bertram’s (Richard Heap), relatively unbelievable. Yet this may just be one of the inherent problems of adaptations because character progression has to happen at such an accelerated speed. Similarly, Tom Bertram (Geoff Arnold) seems to become remarkably and suddenly reformed after the recovery from his illness.

However, generally, the production was very enjoyable and perhaps if the obstinate lady to my left had stayed for the second half, she might have warmed to what I found to be a charming adaptation of a brilliant Austen novel.

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