Mansfield Park is renowned for having one of Jane Austen’s least widely loved heroines. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Fanny Price myself, so it was with interest that I headed to the Oxford Playhouse to see the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds’ stage version of the piece.
Unfortunately, the adaptation suffers from a lot of the difficulties that often beset an attempt to transfer a long literary work to a very different medium. A lot of it just feels slightly clunky: there’s a lot of exposition and scene setting in the first half, and consequently it drags somewhat, despite the compressing of a huge amount of plot into a relatively short length of time. The pace of the second act is much better, though it’s still hard to engage with any of the characters on more than a superficial level.
There is plenty about the production that merits praise: the costumes are sumptuous, the set is simple but elegant and effective, and the frequent shifts of scene are handled skilfully and don’t hold up the action. There’s some ingenious doubling (particular plaudits to Geoff Arnold, doubling Tom Bertram, Mr Rushworth, and William Price, who had me completely fooled – I didn’t even realize until the curtain call that there was only one of him), and some other creative devices to deal with the challenge of presenting a large number of characters with a small troupe of actors (the fact that Lady Bertram was always upstairs with a headache became something of a running joke). And there are some strong performances: to name but a few, Richard Heap is a commanding presence as Sir Thomas Bertram, Karen Ascoe lectures and hectors as the horrendous Mrs Norris, and Kristin Atherton and Samuel Collings are bright, fun, and suitably amoral as Mary and Henry Crawford.
Overall, there’s a strong impression that the cast are giving it their all and doing their best with the material available. None of it is bad: the characters come across clearly, and the story is told. But in the end, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it could have been so much more.