Persuasion – Rose Theatre Kingston, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Adaptors: Jeff James with James Yeatman

Director: Jeff James

There are really three ways to present classic texts in the twenty-first century. The most conservative, most respectful way is to presume the text has earned its reputation – Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte, Austen, they still have value because they just do. Present them as nearly as possible to the way they first engaged their public. The second way is to mine the text for contemporary relevance, to highlight colonialism in The Tempest, or queer subtext in The Importance of Being Earnest. The production values and the acting choices may sometimes hit the contemporary notes harder than whatever the author actually intended, but there is respect for the original text, and a conversation between then and now

The last way is to choose a text that has something handy – reputation, or being a GCSE text, or offering a chance to put pretty people in pretty clothes, and then have fun. Set it in a club, layer it with disco lights and banging tunes, replace subtle courtship with tongue-wrestling. Have a laugh. Make the anachronisms into knowing gags. That’s the option Jeff James (adaptor and director) has gone for with his re-working of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. When Anne Elliott gets frustrated, she propels the people who annoy her into an off-stage void. It’s funny, but it doesn’t have much to do with the suppressed, hidebound society that Austen presented, where a woman’s frustrations might be expressed by a firmly planted tea-cup.

The set (by Alex Lowde) is outlined in neon. It’s made up of two rectangles, and the upper one revolves, so the view goes twisted, askew. It’s a neat way to establish the way the production views Austen’s world. It’s a fun production – there’s clubbing and foam and sparkly bikinis. There’s a contemporary (suppressed) lesbian love story. There’s lots of snogging. There are a wealth of weird, angular, funny dances, courtesy of movement director Morgann Runacre-Temple and excellently performed by Matilda Bailes and Caroline Moroney and there’s some very well-judged posing by Adam Deary, as a brainless, charmless hunk who wants to marry Anne but makes do with her sister.

The wonderful lighting designer Lucy Carter fills the space with disco chase lights and big splodges of colour, suggesting she can do an Ibizan night club just as well as she can a proper play. And the story is held together by Sasha Frost’s Anne Elliott. She observes, she reflects on her poor choices, she wonders if things will ever get better. It’s a calm, focussed performance in the middle of a maelstrom of gags and pratfalls. Will she get back together with Fred Fergus’ Captain Wentworth, or will the bright lights and Balearic beats of big-city Bath overwhelm her? Ms. Frost seems to suggest that she’s done with dazzle, and she has her own view of how her future will unfold, bringing the show a little back in line with Jane Austen.

There are an awful lot of songs, by Cardi B and Megann Thee Stallion and numerous other contemporary songsters. If listening to Cardi B while gesturing towards High Culture is someone’s idea of a good time, this is a full-throttle, fun-packed show. For anyone who actually enjoys reading Jane Austen, it should probably be avoided.

Runs until 19 March 2022 and then at Alexandra Palace Theatre 7 – 30 April

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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