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Every Jane Austen fan has their own favourite, and for many, it’s her last novel. Published six months after Austen’s death at just 41, Persuasion may not have the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice, nor the enjoyable scheming of Emma, but I’ve always found the story of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth’s love affair the most moving – perhaps because it feels the most realistic.
Most of us don’t bump into our perfect partner aged twenty at the local Assembly Rooms and live happily ever after. Most of us have managed to mess up a relationship we thought was going to be perfect, and have longed for the chance to explain. Persuasion, with its themes of second chances and regret, is a story we can all identify with, and the perfect companion piece to the Hampstead Players’ 2015 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
At its centre is Anne Elliot, the overlooked middle daughter of the vain, extravagant Sir Walter (a wonderfully comic Malcolm Stern). Having been persuaded to turn down a proposal of marriage from the dashing yet low ranking Captain Wentworth eight years earlier, Anne is now – at the impossibly ancient age of 27 - living in a sort of stasis of unspoken grief, certain she did the wrong thing but utterly unable to correct her mistake. Until, inevitably, Wentworth strides back into her life - along with the vivacious Musgrove sisters, played with wit and energy by Rebecca Dodson and Ruby Gilmore, who seem determined to capture his attention.
Is Wentworth over Anne? Will she have a chance to tell him of her regrets before he runs away with a Musgrove? These are the questions which drive the story forward, which makes this perhaps the most challenging Austen novel to adapt for the stage. That dramatic fall from the Cobb aside (rendered on stage ingeniously by Sheena Craig), much of the action is internalised, with Anne’s struggle to control her inner turmoil, and Wentworth’s bluffing out of his own hurt and anger.
Director Shereen Abdallah and Associate Director Jane Mayfield’s co-written adaptation deals with these challenges impressively, conveying the book’s often complex plot without ever feeling rushed or didactic. At times, ensemble scenes included conversations which cleverly overlapped across the stage, interwoven in a way which portrayed the dynamics of an early nineteenth century social gathering, as well as Anne’s position as the silent centre of a whirlwind of anxieties, demands and eccentricities.
Present in almost every scene, yet often with very little dialogue to convey her thoughts, Anne spends much of the play being talked at – by her flamboyant family, by her confidante Lady Russell (a deliciously haughty Dorothy Jenkins) and by her various acquaintances. In the midst of it all, Alice Lambert gave a beautiful portrayal of Anne’s quiet, dignified struggle to contain her emotions. Playing an Austen heroine is a particular challenge, with very little time off and often limited opportunities to convey feeling through dialogue – particularly in the case of Anne. Austen herself declared she was ‘almost too good for me’, but this Anne Elliot found moments of mischievous humour as well as patience, and her joy at finally being able to speak her mind at the play’s conclusion was one of my favourite moments. Opposite her, Nicholas Holzapfel’s engaging Captain Wentworth was a refreshing departure from the brooding, morose Austen hero – his lively, outgoing characterisation contrasted starkly with moments of hurt and resentment, and felt much truer to the source material than the character is often played.
Often described as Austen’s most mature novel, Persuasion is also, to my mind, one of her funniest. The absurdity of Anne’s relations heightens the loneliness of her situation, and all came to life wonderfully on stage. Her vain older sister Elizabeth, played with comic flair by Margaret Pritchard-Houston, fusses and frets about money and social position whilst proudly declaring she has given up all unnecessary charitable donations, whilst her younger sister Mary is the original drama queen – Jo Siddall’s hilarious portrayal of her many meltdowns and tantrums frequently had the audience in stitches. Meanwhile, Mary’s husband Charles Musgrove (Geoff Prutton) looks on in bewilderment – I particularly enjoyed his oblivious crashing of the romantic climax between our hero and heroine (‘our sport was cut short by a pesky young dog!’)
Perhaps this is why Jane Austen and the Hampstead Players get on so well together – both feature a strength and depth in their ensemble casts. Everyone in the nineteen-strong cast brought their characters to life with energy and commitment, from Nicki Siddall’s kindly Mrs Musgrove (Mr Musgrove was, we are told, busy at the assizes) to Simon Malpas' and Cara Pennock’s amiable, contented Admiral and Mrs Croft – in the early scenes, a painful reminder to Anne of what she might have had. Persuasion is an unusual Austen in depicting quite so many successful marriages – alongside these contented couples are the Harvilles of Lyme Regis (Adrian Hughes and Sheena Craig), whose kindly wisdom provides a contrast to Edward Smith’s devious William Elliot and Anna Rolfe’s mysterious Mrs Clay – the scheming baddies of the piece. I enjoyed too the contrast between the grander ensemble scenes and the quiet domesticity of Mrs Smith and Nurse Rook (Rebecca Selman and Catherine Martin), as they calmly and decisively deliver the final revelations about a certain character’s dubious morals….
The church, too, seems to lend itself well to Austen’s settings, and credit goes to the production team for such effective use of the space. Well thought out sound (Ellie Brammar) and lighting (Matthew Williams) along with simple, uncluttered staging and smooth transitions set the scenes beautifully, and provided the perfect backdrop to the welcome return of Cristina Báncora’s elegant choreography. I particularly liked the use of projections behind the stage, denoting which household we were in – a clever solution to one of the challenges of staging Austen novels, which largely take place in a succession of drawing rooms. The impeccable costumes (fabulous two years ago, is it possible that they were even better this time?!) also helped, with swift changes indicating the passage of time as well as variations in social setting. The costume team of Margaret Pritchard-Houston, Cara Pennock, Anna Rolfe and Jane Mayfield deserved a curtain call of their own for the enormous amount of work which must have gone into these.
As the cast and crew celebrated on the final evening of the show (I of course crashed the party) Shereen Abdullah presented her co-writer Jane Mayfield with a copy of Sense and Sensibility, and a knowing smile...It’s too early to know if another Austen is in the offing for the Hampstead Players, but the audience would certainly welcome it!