It’s surely the acting that has made Andrew Keatley’s well-crafted family drama such a sell-out success. Although fertile ground, upper-class dysfunction, with a dash of historical perspective, along with dementia and autism, make the play a mix and match of familiar topics. Yet Keatley writes short scenes and characters with textbook precision and the 11-strong cast responds with exciting vigour.
William is the patriarch, testily patching up past mistakes while struggling with his memory – Clive Francis is superb in the role. Jane Asher is perfectly cast as his careful wife (she even gets to comment on a cake). Alexander Hanson and Nick Sampson play his sons, the later stealing the show as the autistic Samuel, while Katie Scarfe brings a family resemblance and carefully understated performance as an estranged daughter. The younger generation is represented by Tom Hanson (it really is a family affair), Amber James and Georgina Beedle – all well delineated roles that bring plenty of humour to savvy, if slightly predictable, observations. In short, this cast should transfer to the West End tomorrow.
Credit to Antony Eden’s direction (tellingly, he’s a performer himself as well) for covering so much ground so quickly. But herein lies a problem. With so much going on it’s difficult to find a focus, any resolution feels pat, and the play lacks momentum. There are plenty of secrets in this family, but very little tension. So, while the characters are three dimensional, we don’t see enough of anyone to really get a satisfying sense of depth. Frustratingly, the solution seems simple – this is a family tree that could do with some pruning.
It’s a brave soul who takes on the task of adapting Pride and Prejudice, one of English literature’s best-loved novels, for the stage. Jane Austen is so famous she might be on a bank note soon, and the fact that this book is a masterpiece has to be – dare we say –universally acknowledged. But Simon Reade’s interpretation of the love lives of the Bennet sisters will please diehard Austen fans, preserving swathes of conversation rather than dumbing them down, while still presenting a light romcom that makes for a hugely entertaining evening.
A few minor characters are casualties of the adaptation (who would have thought you would miss Mr Gardiner?) and the Bennets are denied trips to Brighton and London. The action is concertinaed to satisfying theatrical effect, with an emphasis on laughter. Director Deborah Bruce uses designer Max Jones’ set dynamically (there’s a great scene in the portrait gallery of a palatial home that uses the whole cast). Toward the climax, the revolving stage could be joined by a revolving door to the Bennets’ home – visitors arrive so thick and fast – but the speed of the show employs the sillier aspects of Regency Romance to comic effect.
The biggest loss, unavoidably, is Austen’s own voice. The task of delivering her irony falls on the cast and the performances reflect Austen’s wit superbly. Rebecca Lacey is wonderful as the foolish Mrs Bennet and Timothy Walker gives a weighty performance as her long-suffering husband. There are strong performances from minor characters, with Jane Asher frozen with imperiousness as Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The Bennet sisters are portrayed convincingly as a family group, and differentiated effectively. Amongst their suitors, Ed Birch almost steals the show, with his crane-like Mr Collins – full of “servility and self-importance” – getting plenty of laughs.
Just as the novel belongs to Elizabeth Bennet, the night is, fittingly, owned by the actress playing her – Jennifer Kirby. Making her professional debut in the show, Kirby takes on the mantle of plenty of people’s favourite heroine with an unaffected charm. My bet is that Kirby was a fan of Elizabeth long before she landed the part, and her performance makes you love this great heroine even more.
Brandon Thomas’ legendary farce has enjoyed an illustrious history since its 1892 premiere, and a host of stars have donned drag as Lord Fancourt Babberley, who masquerades as a chaperone for his university friends Charley and Jack. Ian Talbot’s new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory uses the piece’s period and nostalgic appeal to delight the audience. It’s a “clinking good idea” that results in an evening both gentle and civilised.
In the title role, Mathew Horne gives an accomplished performance marked by surprising restraint. He never flags, but in trying to show the lovesick emotions underneath the antimacassar he’s using as a shawl, the comedy fails to fly. It doesn’t help that the show has two intervals. We get some fantastic sets from designer Paul Farnsworth, but taking time out for big breathers during a farce isn’t a good idea. There’s plenty of fun when Charley’s ‘aunt’ is chased around the college quad or a piano, but the real strength of the night is that the whole ensemble has its share in the spotlight, making Talbot’s production pleasingly balanced.
Dominic Tighe and Benjamin Askew both excel as Babberley’s fellow students Jack and Charley, and all the love interests (Leah Whitaker, Ellie Beaven and Charlie Clemmow) do well with frankly clunky roles, getting the laughs out of all those stiff upper lips. Steven Pacey works marvels as Jack’s father with some great comic touches and Jane Asher, who plays Charley’s real aunt, will leave everyone with the words “she’s wasted in the part” on their lips. Their performances all show a consummate skill that’s fitting for Talbot’s respectful revival.