Thursday, 19 April 2018

Austen at the Kenton is worth a tenner or two of anyone's money

Austen at the Kenton is worth a tenner or two of anyone's money

Sense and Sensibility | Kenton Theatre | Tuesday, October 17

HOW could a woman writer, the daughter of a clergyman and leading a sheltered life over 200 years ago, have foreseen the huge uprising of feminism in the 20th century and been brave enough to poke gentle fun at the stuffiness of her age? Yet Jane Austen, whose likeness now graces our graceless new £10 notes, did just that.

The Henley Players are currently offering Olivier Award-winning Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, often cited as her finest work.

What a brave choice that is for the Henley Players to tackle with its multi-scene staging — stage left shows us one dilemma while stage right offers us another cameo without ever confusing the audience — and the subtleties of Austen’s writing.

Jane Austen would be proud of them, for the cast pick up and highlight many of the subtleties of Austen’s writing — for example, the almost off-stage cameo of the protective but long-suffering Mr Palmer (the inimitable Mike Rowbottom, never known to let an opportunity for superb acting pass him by), deflecting a small sherry from the hands of the lively though pregnant Mrs Palmer (Kathryn Morley).

It is this attention to the subtext of a script that always makes productions by the Henley Players worth a visit and keeps their audiences involved.

The plotline is simply that of the desperate need to get single daughters well married to ensure the family’s financial security and social standing — oh so important in 18th century England.

We follow the ups and downs of the romances and heartaches of two of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (played with great calm and aplomb by Samantha Field, representing good sense while hiding her own deep wells of sensibility) and Marianne (Sophia Rios of the lovely voice, who leads the field in every way, displaying a teenager’s need to learn to overlay her heart on her sleeve with some sensibility with a little sense of decorum).

The youngest sister, Margaret (beautifully played by Georgia Newton) is still preoccupied with bugs and beetles and too young yet to be concerned with the strange ways of men and love affairs — a perfect counterpoint to her sisters and their man troubles.

Their mother (Margie Barrios) gives a lovely performance of a fluttering, fussy, weak woman of her time who knows nothing other than the endless boredom of a woman’s lot — waiting, waiting for the man, for marriage — and can envisage no other way of life.

Meanwhile, her daughters are champing at the bit and wanting more, each in her separate way.

Interestingly, Austen has Elinor and Marianne follow the traditional marriage path, leaving only the young Margaret to dream a different life for herself, as an independent career woman and a scientist. Wild thinking indeed in the genteel days of 18th century England.

Sir John Middleton (Tim Green), Mrs Jennings (Jenny Haywood), and Lucy Steele (Lucy Baker) are all a joy to watch. Sam Riley played a fascinatingly acid Fanny Dashwood. Colonel Brandon (Adam Brimley), the good chap in all these romantic shenanigans, will probably be Henley’s Swoon of the Year.

The casting of this production was excellent and every member of the cast played his or her part extremely well. How much of this is due to their talent and commitment and how much to the skill of director, Julie Huntington, who can say — but I suspect that Julie Huntington’s experienced hand plays a large part in the triumph of the production.

Live theatre offers so much subtlety that television cannot. Tear yourself away from the same old same old on the box and book a seat for Sense and Sensibility. It’s the only sensible thing to do.

Until Saturday.

Bridget Fraser

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