One reason why the novels of Jane Austen lend themselves so comfortably to dramatisation is that Austen wrote dialogue which just begs to be spoken aloud. The verbal exchanges offer characterisation as well as forwarding the plot, so using as many of them as possible makes a great deal of sense for the adapter.
In the case of Mansfield Park, this task now falls to Tim Luscombe, who has already made stage versions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is perhaps the least popular of Austen’s books, but this adaptation contrives to make its heroine Fanny Price into something more than a hard-done-by pattern of perfection and to give the same sense of more than a mere two dimensions to Edmund Bertram, the cousin on whom her shy attentions are fixed.
Director Colin Blumenau and designer Kit Surrey ensure that the action is fast-moving. The setting is coolly Regency – grey drapes printed with engravings of town, country and naval scenes, steps and a balustrade, a scattering of divan cushions. Simple but eye-catching costume changes allow the cast of eight to assume 18 roles, not counting those of the disastrous attempt to mount an amateur production of Inchbald’s version of Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows.
Ffion Jolly makes a charming heroine, her silences and reactions telling us as much about Fanny’s inner turmoils as her actual dialogue. Pete Ashmore is no mere stick as Edmund; you can believe that he’ll make a good clergyman as well as a thoughtful landlord. Mrs Norris is one of Austen’s glorious gallery of verbose and unpleasant busybodies and Karen Ascoe has her measure, just as Richard Heap has that of both Sir Thomas and the former lieutenant of marines, Fanny’s beached-up father.
The Rushworth siblings are such a mixture of the truly fascinating and the slightly repellent that they’re almost impossible to play. Samuel Collings as Henry has slightly the edge here over Kristin Ashworth’s Mary. Luscombe puts Fanny’s sailor brother more centre-stage than in the novel, which works well; Geoff Arnold doubles the part with those of the wastrel Tom Bertram and the fatuous Mr Rushworth, whom Maria Bertram (Leonie Spilsbury marries in haste and deserts even more speedily.