Austen the Musical – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: Rob Winlow

Director: Timothy Trimingham Lee

Reviewer: John Kennedy

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many a review of Jane Austen adaptations has the misfortune of being in want of a less contrived introduction.

Axiomatic as that may be, tonight’s songs celebrate a singular panache for delivering melodies more memorable for their immediate context and sincerity rather than any lasting recollection. The four-part counter-harmony dynamics come perilously close to implosion at times save for the leading, crystal precision of Edith Kirkwood’s superbly delivered Jane. Adam Grayson, in his principal role as the indomitable father, George, is occasionally taken out of his more comfortable lower vocal registers to distracting effect. Non-speaking part sister Cassandra, Ariene McNaught, plays keyboards. The ‘piano’ tonality setting remains constant throughout whereas flavours of period synthesised strings or harpsichord might lend further colour and texture.

The libretto plays it by the book, imaginatively referencing both novels and the biographical canon. No fear that The Jane Austen Society(Bath para-military wing) will take umbrage.

Intelligently written and guided by (the spiffingly trip-trop named) Timothy Trimingham Lee’s light touch and tightly nuanced direction, what might be a sweet and sticky hagiography akin to being bashed on the head with a Quality Street tin instead maintains a convincing integrity notwithstanding characters bursting into song on the slightest impulse for dramatic effect – the show title does allow due anticipation of this. Unabashed with its love-letter homage to both iconic author and readers, writer Rob Winlow eschews lending additional, anachronistic agency to the struggle Austen and her female contemporaries faced in achieving recognition. Not quite the ‘Vicar’s Daughter In Regency Romp Bath Splash’ the title might suggest but equally gratifying, Austen lovers will be in thrall whilst the curious should be even curiouser.

Songs of elation, frustration and love forsaken; songs of rejection, reflection together with the occasional giddily paced Gilbert & Sullivan tongue-tripping modulation, the repertoire is nothing less than ambitious, squeezing quart-sized performances in to a pint -sized plot. The tear-twitching closing scene’s reprise refrain from Romantic Heart suggests that some of Winlow’s melodies are not quite that ephemeral after all. Worth keeping a close eye out for Ms Kirkwood as well.

Runs until 13 January 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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