On a single, extra-ordinarily flexible and cleverly crafted set (great work from designer Libby Watson and lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth) we are taken on a tour of rural Somerset, the Cobb at Lyme and the dance halls of Bath, and the ten actors seamlessly double and triple up to portray 23 distinct characters (with discreet and effective changes in costume and make-up) without ever confusing or distracting the audience from the narrative.
Set in 1807, and beginning at Kellynch Hall, Somersetshire, the home of the widowed Sir Walter Elliot and his daughters, who on seeing a contraction in their financial circumstances, consider what the future holds. Anne Elliot fell deeply in love with handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth at the age of 19. But with neither fortune nor rank to recommend him, Anne’s family were against the match and persuaded her to break off the engagement. Eight years on, Anne has lived to regret her decision. She never stopped loving Frederick – and when he returns from sea a Captain, she can only watch as every eligible young woman falls at his feet. Can the pair rekindle a love that was lost but not forgotten?
Well, considering Austen’s novel was first published in 1816, and has been the subject of a number film, stage and television adaptations in the past, there will be few that do not know the answer to that question already. However in this sparkling new production, under the inspired direction of Kate Saxon, there is a freshness and modernity, whilst completely retaining the authentic period feel, which reaches out and pulls the audience in.
It is blessed with a strong and tireless cast which includes Stephen Billington, Jessie Burton, Emma Jerrold, Lydia Larson and Lizzie Winkler (superb as hypochondriac Mary) – who are all in fine form, in multiple supporting roles - Simon Chandler (a suitably vain and snobbish Sir Walter) and Jessica Turner, as the ever-present, ever-advising Lady Russell who’s “value for rank and consequence … blinds her a little to the faults of those who possessed them”. The central trio of Marianne Oldham (as our heroine, the self-sacrificing Anne), Tim Delap (the handsome Captain, Frederick Wentworth) and Christopher Harper (primarily as the black hearted William Elliot, but doubling effectively also as Charles Musgrove and Mr Benwick) are enthralling, and each deliver first rate and well observed performances. Indeed there is a mesmeric quality about Marianne’s stage presence which promises greatness to come.
A faultless and inspired production, ideally crafted to be toured, and richly deserving of a national audience, Salisbury audiences can consider themselves very lucky to continue to have work of this quality on its doorstep.