Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A New Musical Drama (Assembly Rooms, 6 Aug – 9 Aug : 21:30 : 2hr 45)

“The cast were undeniably talented”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I’m always a bit wary of American troupes performing very British shows in Britain, as I’ve so rarely seen them pulled off well. Unfortunately this production did little to change my mind, although there were some very promising moments.

This presentation billed itself as a new musical drama adaption of one of Austen’s finest works. And while I was expecting (and honestly would have preferred) slightly more Broadway than the Gilbert and Sullivan that was presented, the main fault with this show was something of an identity crisis – trying to force twee Jane Austen into a rather melodramatic and operatic saga just didn’t quite fit.

However – the positives: this is a big budget (by Fringe standards) show with fabulous costumes and incredibly detailed projection on the backdrop to show changes in location, time and weather. The cast were undeniably talented, with some incredibly strong voices on show in both solo and group numbers, and the band were faultless.

The narrative stayed very faithful to the original book, was easy enough to follow without ever feeling clunky, and that should be a feather in the cap to adapter Barbara Landis. The script contained enough detail to properly establish each scene and character in full, even if, at just under three hours (including interval), it’s a bit of a slog.

When it came to the acting though, there was a distinct contrast in styles between some of performers, which didn’t help the sense of jarring between what I think the company were trying to achieve and what we saw. While Jeff Diebold as Captain Wentworth showed great sensitivity to the emotion and style of Jane Austen, Barbara Landis as heroine Anne Elliot and John Boss as her father were perhaps the most guilty of over-theatricalising every line. This would have been great in a full-scale opera or vaudeville, but didn’t work with what should have been a more gentle approach to a British masterpiece.

Putting that to one side, the chorus numbers (in particular Who Could Love Like an Irish Man and A Sailor’s Life) were spectacular – they were performed with vim, energy and an incredible blend of voices. Moments like these brought a sense of contrast to a show that was in many other respects distinctly lacking in light and shade due to severe overacting in the more gentle scenes, which made them all feel somewhat samey in mood.

Overall, this show has a lot of the basics to be fantastic, and while the period music and libretto were not to my personal taste, the bones of this original adaptation were sound and would probably please anyone with a preference to more traditional theatre. Although there were some wonderful moments of character and hilarity, I don’t feel the piece really hung together as an operetta, and stricter, more sensitive direction and more variation in melody and musical style of each number could have helped bring out the layers of Austen’s writing.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 6 August)

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