Jane Austen's Persuasion at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – review
James Yeatman and Jeff James' modern-day, pop-infused adaptation is also set to run at Alexandra Palace and Oxford Playhouse
Regency is all the rage right now. Bridgerton's second series is to be released imminently, we've just had an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in the West End, and now the Rose Theatre and Alexandra Palace (in associate with Oxford Playhouse) present a new take on Jane Austen's posthumously published novel, Persuasion.
It is easy to forget that Austen's work is essentially the blueprint of rom-coms, and Persuasion is no exception. Eight years before the story kicks off, Anne (Sasha Frost) was betrothed to Wentworth (Fred Fergus), but due to his lack of prospects, Anne's family force her to break off the romance. Now, aged 27 (practically an old woman, as her family and friends consistently tell her), Anne is still single and cannot "forget her feelings so easily". When Anne's family are forced to rent out their large home, the pair meet again, with Wentworth now a Captain with a large endowment. The play examines the highs and lows of love and marriage, as well as the choices women face concerning it, in a lively and vibrant production full of surprises.
Jeff James and James Yeatman's adaptation, first seen in 2017, keeps Austen's language but moves it to a present-day setting, unveiling the satirical comedy of her work ("But the North Wing is my favourite wing!" Elizabeth sulks upon the impending financial ruin of her family), as well as exposing just how modern Austen's views were.
To bring the text to the present day, the show is littered with a selection of contemporary tunes such as tracks by Dua Lipa and Lizzo (music and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham) to replace the period-appropriate classical fare which the cast lip-sync and dance to ("you play piano well", is remarked with much hilarity). It takes a while for the audience to be fully on board with the tone of the show, but a third of the way through something clicks and the experience becomes a roaring romp. The inclusion of Cardi B's "WAP" goes down a storm in the second act, its thumping beat surprisingly making a satisfying backing track to a deep chat about love.
Alex Lowde's set design, comprising a white platform that splits and spins into a catwalk, or perhaps the deck of a ship, or turns the space into a timeless limbo. The absence of clear setting and props allows us to be taken in by Austen's language and focus on the characters' relationships. Lucy Carter's bright lighting coupled with blue latex curtains gives the impression of a club at 1am, and a beach trip to Lyme Regis becoming a foam party makes you wonder why more period adaptations don't have its characters slipping and sliding in soap and bubbles.
Vicky Richardson has done a stellar job of assembling a playful cast who are clearly having a lot of fun with this adaptation. As Anne, Frost is strong amidst the cacophony of silliness displayed around her, her eventual getting-together with Fergus' Wentworth rewarded with audience applause. It's a shame we don't get to see more of their interactions to heighten the romantic tension. As excitable teen twins Louisa and Henrietta, Matilda Bailes and Caroline Moroney shine, rolling around the stage and dancing their TikTok-esque routines with any man who asks them to. In their secondary roles of Elizabeth and Penelope they develop a queer side-story inferred from the novel. There's also great work from Helen Cripps as stressed-out mum Mary, who spars excellently with rather-be-anywhere-else husband Charles (Dorian Simpson).
This adaptation is bold, silly and somewhat simplifies the original source material, but it keeps Austen's most remarkable observations: "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story", observes Anne, and in this production, they most certainly get to be at the forefront of the pleasure.