Writer/Composer: Rob Winlow
Director: Timothy Trimingham Lee
Musical Director: Arlene McNaught
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Austen – the Musical is an enjoyable, if rather predictable, brief life of Jane Austen, generally close to the mark in biographical facts, refreshingly free of distortion and sensationalism, if with no special insight or originality. It provides a welcome reminder of a much-loved author and was enthusiastically received at Beverley, the latest stage in a national tour which has grown out of its success at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The play basically concentrates on Austen’s love life, with Thomas Hewitt playing a succession of suitors, notably Tom Lefroy who is the only possible candidate for the role of the love of her life (if there was one) and Harris Bigg-Wither whose proposal of marriage she accepted, only to change her mind almost immediately.
The opening song sets up the question of whether Jane was ever in love and the play touches on the subject of her writing being her real love, though the exploration of her dedication to the work and struggles to be published is only lightly sketched in. Her father makes a few unsuccessful forays round a set of masked and caricatured publishers before announcing triumphantly that Sense and Sensibility has been accepted – one of the few factual alterations as her father died six years earlier.
Rob Winlow certainly knows his Jane Austen and incorporates quotations, motifs and themes cleverly and with various degrees of subtlety, though one sometimes feels one has landed in Pride and Prejudice by mistake. Mrs. Austen proves to be Mrs. Bennet by another name, a preening clergyman suitor is none other than Mr. Collins and it takes only some ten minutes for the celebrated opening line to be trotted out. More ingeniously a song lyric incorporates Mr. Bennet’s bon mot on the subject of never seeing her mother again if she doesn’t marry an eligible, but unprepossessing, suitor and never seeing him again if she does.
Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra are used effectively and the thoroughness of Winlow’s research shows in the appearance of Mr. Stanier Clark, librarian to the Prince Regent. In reality, Austen parodied his interfering attempts to suggest subjects for novels; here this is turned into a very jolly comic song that enlivens the increasingly sad later stages of the play while being absolutely true to events and character.
In fact, the two comic songs in the play, both performed with impressive gusto, are the most memorable numbers. The more serious songs are pleasant, with a very attractive layering of the four voices, and they usefully advance the plot – fortunately, diction is excellent. They are, however, rather similar.
Timothy Trimingham Lee’s direction is pleasingly unfussy and made good use of the available space at the East Riding Theatre; clearly, this is a production that is flexible and light on its feet on its travels. Edith Kirkwood is a serious and convincing Jane Austen, intelligently bringing out the character’s wit. Jenni Lea-Jones spreads comic affectation very amusingly over a range of characters without fully differentiating them. There is no problem differentiating Thomas Hewitt’s suitors, some played realistically, some caricatured, and Adam Grayson is a stalwart Mr. Austen. Arlene McNaught is listed as playing Cassandra, but in fact, apart from receiving a couple of letters, just provides the poised and sympathetic piano accompaniment.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed