(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 June)
Craig Baxter’s play interweaves the plot of one of Trollope’s lesser-known novels Lady Anna with the sea journey from Liverpool to Australia which he and his wife undertook to visit their sheep-farming son. Colin Blunenau’s production has a cast of seven who play both the fictional and real-life characters; Libby Watson’s minimal setting cleverly gives us both worlds.
This production was initially staged for London’s Park Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre is not perhaps an ideal venue for it offering too much division between the audience and the players. But it is the sort of accessible intellectual joke which does draw the audience in, particularly in the second half. The performances are uniformly good.
Rhiannon Handy is Anna Lovel, who has inherited a fortune (though not necessarily a title) if the father who acknowledged her as his daughter was indeed married to her mother (Maggie O’Brien). The title (not not the money) has gone to young Frederick Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley), whose aunt and clergyman uncle dither between thoroughly disliking – not to say distrusting Anna and her mother and egging him on to propose the marriage which will secure the money.
These two schemers are played by Julie Teal and Edward Halsted to fine effect. In opposition stand the skilled craftsmen Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson) and his father Thomas (Jonathan Keeble). Thwaite senior had helped the countess financially and morally when she is penniless; the two children have grown into teenage lovers – which is just the sort of liaison across the class divide which will imperil the status of all the Lovels.
On the voyage to Australia, Trollope (Keeble) and his dictatorial wife Rose (O’Brien) are concerned over the progress of his shipboard-scribed new novel Lady Anna. Rose argues with her maid Isabella ((Handy) while Trollope contends with sceptical and bored fellow male passengers. In the novel, a couple of lawyers (of distinctly Dickensian hue) become embroiled – a nice contrast in approach by Halsted and Keeble.
Frederick’s originally pragmatic, not to say mercenary, approach to the prospect of marriage with a hitherto unknown girl cousin mutates into something stronger – and transforms him in the process. Scott-Rowley convinces with his lightly-sketched yet in-depth portrait of a privileged young man’s growth into maturity. O’Brien’s granite-faced, iron-corroded souled countess is given a well nuanced counterpart in Handy’s Anna, a girl who has principles with the moral fibre to back them up.
It all makes one want to read the novel – and a biography of Trollope as well.
Lady Anna: All At Sea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 2 July with matinées on 30 June and 2 July.