“Emma” , Sutton Arts Theatre, Sutton Coldfield.

Sutton Arts continue their policy of imaginative programming by presenting this production of Emma, an adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel. Such adaptations can be problematic. Aficionados of the novel can be critical of what is inevitably omitted, those new to the story may have to pedal hard initially to catch up with the cognoscenti . Martin Millar and Doon Mackichan’s adaptation boldly eschews 19th century affectation for a more modern approach, which is initially disconcerting, but which works very well indeed. The dialogue is sharp, wry and funny, retaining a sense of authenticity to the original text. The stage directions require two actors to play dual gender roles, which poses particular challenges of credibility and conviction when played straight. In this production the director and cast do well, but as a feature of the adaptation, it is an unnecessary flaw.

Emma is a romantic comedy of manners . The play is character, rather than narrative, driven, nothing substantial happens. Director Ian Appleby understands this well, with his shrewd casting and bouncy production. The story unfolds as a dance. Characters form pairs, move together, separate, and move on, a dynamic which is shrewdly exploited in this production. A bench upon which characters sit, shuffle, and reposition themselves with great regularity, neatly symbolises that movement.

The plot portrays Emma, a beautiful and clever young woman who prides herself on her matchmaking ability. She is preoccupied with romance yet is oblivious to her own feelings of love. When she takes on a young friend , Harriett, as her latest project, her well-intentioned efforts misfire, leading to a whirlwind of complications amongst wonderfully eccentric characters from Jane Austen’s little England. The original story is reinvented in the 21st century as posh chick lit, casting its spell ; part sit- com, part rom –com.

All the drama takes place using a single set, suiting it well to the stage. The set mainly comprises giant bookends of notable Austin novels as pillars, and a stage perimeter littered with books, creating a scene akin to the aftermath of a junior school class visit to the children’s section of the local library. It made its point well, this is a play about words.

The star of the show is Michelle Dawes in the lead role of Emma Woodhouse. Played as an upmarket, skittish, aesthete, with panache and brio, she delivers a commanding performance which set the bar high for those around her. Speaking of the novel, Austen herself described the character as; “ a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”. As a play, however, there is little evidence of much to dislike about the character at all with plenty of comic asides. She delivers the line, “length isn’t everything” , with a twinkle in her eye, and has great fun affecting outrage at the lascivious advances of Mr Elton in a carriage.

Emma and Mr Elton

Emma and Mr Elton

Richard Aucott plays both Emma’s love interest Mr Elton, and her father, with commendable restraint, making the most of the parts, whilst allowing those around him to shine and flourish, a walking stick and a stoop instantly distinguishing the two characters. Anne Deakin has the most demanding task of the night, also playing two principal parts, but with the complication that she has to play both the female Jane Austin as narrator, and the male Mr Knightley, Emma’s other love interest. The staging is much less forgiving to these two roles with a shawl, and a change in vocal pitch, effecting the change in character whilst both parts are on stage simultaneously. Anne is more than up to the challenge, making a stylish and raffish male in high heeled boots and frock coat.

A chorus of four nieces, who double up as sundry prospective wives, is a particular feature of the play. At the start they tumbled onto the stage like a girl pop band to perform a rap number to ragged dance moves bedecked in dresses, white plimsoles, multi coloured socks ,and tinted sunglasses in an opening designed to make clear that this show is not going to be a staid costume drama. Music plays an important part in the show with reprises of The Jackson Fives’ “ABC” , and most bizarrely of all the Prodigy’s “I am a Firestarter” appearing later on, continuing the remit of taking the story out of an overtly period setting. The second act also includes a series of dances which entertains and delights. Curiously the staging does not allow for the cast to change for the dancing which strikes me as a missed opportunity for some extra visual pizzazz. The traditional dances themselves are well executed and a useful counterpoint to the frenetic activity of the first act.

Each niece brings a gloriously idiosyncratic character alive. Louise Farmer, as Miss Bates, hams things up wonderfully with her breathless,dozens of words per second, speech, Suzy Donnelly, as Harriett Smith , laments her misfortunes with an angst ridden excess that any teenager would be proud of. Hayley Leaver, as Jane Fairfax, romps through a mimed soprano performance, whilst Bhupinder Dhamu showed impressive versatility alternating from soppy niece to sophisticated wife in the time it took to put on a scarf.

The story, and production, is unashamedly female dominated . Tomos Frater, as Frank Churchill ,has little to do other than strut, and look good, which he does rather well. Libby Allport plays no fewer than four minor roles, including a man, in an object lesson of how to act and make the most of modest parts that nonetheless are crucial to the plot.

Frank Churchill and the nieces

Frank Churchill and the nieces

This was as good an opening night performance as I have seen by Sutton Arts Theatre, setting quite a standard for the run which finishes on Saturday 11th May. The cast was demonstrably enjoying itself and that communicated itself to an appreciative opening night audience. Exuberant, boisterous and confident, Director Ian Appleby has done a fine job combining song, dance and comedy in a production which delights from start to finish.

For tickets http://www.suttonartstheatre.co.uk

Gary Longden

Sutton Arts Theatre’s next production is Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, 20th June- 29th 2013.

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