Emma

reviewed at the Empire Theatre, Halstead on 22 July

Jane Austen’s novels are multi-faceted gems and not always as simple to bring to the stage as the surface story-line might initially suggest. DOT Productions, with outdoor venues as well as small theatres and arts centres to consider, have however taken a sledge-hammer approach to Emma. It doesn’t really work.

Yes, Emma is a comedy, a comedy of misunderstandings as well as of manners and delicate social nuances. What it is not is a knockabout farce, which is how Michelle Shortland’s production and Non Vaughan-Thomas’ script presents it. The idea of having Serle, the Woodhouses’ housekeeper, as narrator is a good one, but Vaughan-Thomas plays her as a cross between a doddery old retainer and a feather-duster waving maid.

The caricature of Robert Martin further muddies the balance. I know that Emma describes him as “clownish” in the novel, but this is surely meant as a description of an ordinary country-man, not a straw-chewing half-wit (even though she’s trying hard to put Harriet Smith against him as a potential suitor). Frank Churchill is a selfish young man, happy to twist situations for his own amusement, but he’s not a pop-star poseur.

As far as the (mainly doubled-up) performances are concerned, Clara Power makes an attractive Emma and Andrew Lindfield manages to play Mr Knightley straight, which is more than you can say for his Martin or Churchill. Sarita Plowman simpers her way through Harriet and Jane Fairfax; the former is surely naïve but mannerly and the latter cultured, accomplished and elegant – which is why Emma’s attitude to her is so spiky and brittle.

Leigh Stevenson is the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, the self-esteeming Mr Elton and his matching bride of arrogance and vulgarity, Augusta. Some of the staging is clever – the fireplace reversing to become a carriage, the use of empty picture-frames and the like – but the overall impression, not helped by much of the costuming, remains that of a picture slap-dashed by a decorator’s roller rather than a miniaturist’s fine sable brush.

Three star rating.

Emma tours mainly in East Anglia but also to  Isleworth, Enfield, Abingdon,Brighton, London and Eastbourne until 27 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

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