DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Sense and Sensibility – Theatre Royal, York

Writer: Jane Austen

Adapted by: Jessica Swale

Director: Juliet Forster

Designer: Barney George

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Lakes Season at York Theatre Royal is a terrific idea. Over the summer, The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick presented five plays with the same ten actors, each involved in two or three plays, in either Main Theatre or Studio. Four of these five are now being re-staged in York over a two-week period.

Sense and Sensibility was the final grand offering of the Keswick season, the one production that utilised the full company. Jessica Swale’s adaptation and Juliet Forster’s direction are both flexible and ingenious, the production is visually appealing, notably in the skillful use of atmospheric video projections, the music frequently delights, the cast is uniformly strong, so why does the production fail to sparkle?

Perhaps it’s partly a matter of time and place. The end of a summer season with a fine company is the time to enjoy an over-long (at three hours plus) production, delighting in some pantomimic over-indulgence by company favourites. More importantly, the main theatre at Keswick is half the size of the Theatre Royal and the conversational scenes still seem aimed at the smaller theatre. So we have a mixture of low-volume conversation and comedy grotesques. 

Swale’s adaptation is true to Jane Austen’s original and surprisingly full, though a certain pruning of characters is inevitable. Sense and Sensibility are the two older Dashwood daughters, Elinor and Marianne. The family having been evicted from their home by their self-aggrandising relatives, the two young women react differently to their new life of genteel poverty and to the inevitable attentions of men. Elinor falls for the good, kind, tongue-tied Edward Ferrars and suffers in silence when he fails to ask for her hand. Marianne, the Romantic, gives her heart to a self-evident rotter, Willoughby, and contemptuously spurns the decent, intelligent, old (35!) and unglamorous Colonel Brandon. The narrative proceeds as we all hope, though with over-extended back stories from Brandon and Willoughby, and, by a little compressing of Austen’s chronology, achieves an instant happy ending.

At a time when Jane Austen films and adaptations continue to gain great success it may seem an odd question, but how much do her novels offer without that wonderfully unique and authentic authorial voice? The sardonic note of irony surfaces occasionally (Theo Fraser Steele in the small part of Mr. Palmer, for instance), but more often the production is pitched between a moral narrative and something resembling a Restoration comedy.

For all that, there is much to admire, from Jon Nicholls’ faux-Handel music to Simon Wainwright’s evocative video designs. Sarah Kempton and Alice Imelda let the characters of Elinor and Marianne grow and develop. Several actors have fun doubling parts in Barney George’s extravagant costumes, notably Lydea Perkins, combining the madcap naturalist Margaret Dashwood with the insufferably self-regarding (and self-deluding) Lucy Steele.

The Lakes Season runs until 17 November 2018 | Image: Contributed

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