Vanity Fair – Duke of Kent, Ealing, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Adaptor and Director: Nicky Diss

Open Bar Theatre is Fullers’ go-to theatre company for pub garden productions. It mainly puts on versions of Shakespeare adapted for a small cast, and has, over the years, won plaudits for some of its shows. Shakespeare’s often familiar plots and clean storylines usually work well in these adaptations.

Thackeray’s epic nineteenth-century novel, Vanity Fair, however, doesn’t immediately suggest itself as an ideal candidate for an evening’s adaptation. It was first published in serial form, as were Dickens’ voluminous novels, running to 20 parts published between 1847 and 1848.

Open Bar Theatre have no fear of multiple costume changes and clearly relishes portraying the vast cast of characters from Thackeray’s novel. But from the audience’s point of view, it gets increasingly difficult to distinguish the characters and their relationships over time. The two male actors, Thomas Judd and Ben Galpin, are strong. Judd won an Offie award for his 71 costume changes in a recent production of Open Bar’s Sense and Sensibility. But it’s less his costume-changing skills and more his very good physical and vocal presence in Vanity Fair that stand out. Ben Galpin, playing both male and female characters, also gives a range of convincing performances here.

More tricky to play are the two main female parts – the cunning Becky Sharpe and her gentle friend, Amelia Sedley, played by Felicity Sparks and Princess Donnough. They evidently enjoy playing both these parts and a whole range of minor characters besides. But the problem is their vocal projection just isn’t sufficiently strong and it’s often hard to hear what they are saying. This is not helped by the writing , which forces them mainly to deliver lines in shrieks.

The staging for this touring pub-garden production is neat. There’s a sort of triptych as a stage, where windows open to reveal a whole lot of comic characters. With the doors shut, we see in miniature a pair of elegant regency houses. Between these, boxes are lifted in and out and become small parts of stage furniture. The windows act as screens behind which the actors, with great ingenuity, put on and off costumes and don a variety of hats. There’s some genuinely funny interaction with the audience whereby individuals are invited without warning to play some part or other.

But the complexities of the plot, although evidently known to the cast, simply don’t come over to the audience. There is far too much going on and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow even the broadest of the plot lines. There’s the overall story of Becky’s attempt to survive in Regency society by snaring a wealthy husband. She makes the mistake of marrying Rawdon, the second son of Sir Pitt Crawley. Captain George Osborne is engaged to Amelia Sedley. He marries her despite her father having lost all his money. His reward for this is to be disinherited. But he turns out to be a less than faithful husband and gets his just deserts when he dies in the Battle of Waterloo. The one decent character is William Dobbin, silently faithful admirer and true friend to Amelia.

There is more, much much more. Debt and disease, duels and destitution, all have their part to play. But as entertainment, this adaptation is a story of diminishing returns as the cast rattles through endless plot twists. There are a handful of original songs at the beginning and end, but not enough to become vital to the story.

Reviewed on 13 May 2024 and continues to tour

Long, hard-to-follow

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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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