Two sisters, one ruled by her heart and the other controlled by the need to behave sensibly. They’re Marianne and Elinor, of course, the siblings at the heart of Jane Austen’s first published novel. We must remember that they’re both still teenagers when the story begins, though Elinor has had to take on maturity more quickly than is comfortable in the wake of their father’s death and their mother’s subsequent impoverishment.
The adaptation by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham pares away many of the characters familiar from both the book and its screen adaptations. We are left with the two girls, their suitors, Mrs Jennings (here the sisters’ great-aunt) and the conniving Lucy Steele. Matt Devitt’s production moreover has both the dashing John Willoughby and the conscientious Edward Ferrars played by the same actor.
It all places a weight on the actors and the settings within which they play out their dramas. Norman Coates has given us a pillared set, backed by an immense picture frame with projected engravings to indicate the different locations and simple drop-in windows to reinforce this. There is little furniture, which is historically correct, and the music arranged by Julian Littman is played to cover scene changes and to suggest the shifts of place and mood.
I saw it at the second preview, so it may well have sparkled up by the time you read this. Francesca Loren is a slightly frumpish Elinor, though she projects the very real heartache which her own initially thwarted love, the catastrophes of her sister’s entanglement and the difficulties her role as the recipient of other people’s confidences occasion very well. Pam Jolley’s Marianne is more than just headstrong; she’s shrill, even squawky, as she whirls away from safety and security towards an illusion whose explosion will devastate her.
Mrs Jennings is a full-blown character with a propensity to collect all the notice as she leaps to conclusions and grasps the wrong end of every stick of gossip proffered her. Karen Mann has great fun with the part. Elliot Harper contrasts the flamboyance of Willoughby with the reticence of Ferrars to considerable effect but Marcus Webb doesn’t seem altogether at ease with Colonel Brandon, a little too much of the flannel waistcoat and not enough of the experienced soldier and landowner. Sarah Scowen’s Lucy is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work – just as she should be.
In this version, the characters spend a great deal of time telling each other things, usually while sitting down; much of the dialogue comes from the novel. It makes for a rather static piece of theatre. With the style somewhat swamping the story. One of Austen’s great gifts was her ability to make her readers care about her characters right through to the final knotting of loose and matrimonial threads. I wanted to be moved, caught up in the drama as it unfolded. Alas, on this occasion I wasn’t.