There's a sketch of Jane Austen’ favourite niece Fanny which shows her at a writing table engrossed in her work. It is probably a letter, but it could be her accounts. When we arrive in the auditorium for Austen’s Women, the stage is occupied by a young woman in a peignoir busy at a similar desk.
Behind her is a screen over which hang various items of clothing and the floor is carpeted. There is nothing else. The introductory music is modern and popular. This is going to be a show about a writer whose characters resonate across 200 years and contain truths for the 21st century just as much as for readers in the early 19th century.
Rebecca Vaughan uses only Austen’s own words to provide a linking narration for the gallery of young, middle-aged and older women she illustrates. There’s Lizzy Bennet with her equivocal reactions to Darcy and Emma Woodhouse, secure in her social pre-eminence. There’s Marianne Dashwood and naïve little Harriet Smith, both having to accept that they have loved men who wanted someone altogether better endowed with worldly goods. Sad Miss Bates pours out her torrents of inconsequential chatter.
We meet also the ever-complaining Mary Musgrove and valetudinarian Diana Parker, who seeks relief at the new coastal resort of Sanditon, and that status- and pocket-conscious trio Mesdames Norris, Dashwood and Elton. Elizabeth Watson has settled into middle life accepting that she has lost the only man she could have married through her sister’s meddling. Mary Stanhope from the early epistolary novel The Three Sisters, written when Austen was still a teenager, wants a wealthy marriage but not the older man who has a made the offer. Catherine Morland just wants to be a heroine.
It’s a tour-de-force performance, drawing us into a world which is entirely credible. Vaughan uses her props wisely and by the end transforms herself into an elegant young lady ready to face a crowded ballroom and there (perhaps) capture the man of her dreams. The linking narration comes from a whole host of Austen’s writings to tell us as much about the novelist as her creations. You don’t need to know the books to enjoy the performance, but it’s a pity if you haven’t. Guy Masterson directs and the costume designer is Kate Flanaghan.