sun 14/04/2024

Persuasion, Alexandra Palace Theatre review - graphic-novel-style Austen | reviews, news & interviews

Persuasion, Alexandra Palace Theatre review - graphic-novel-style Austen

Persuasion, Alexandra Palace Theatre review - graphic-novel-style Austen

The soundtrack features musicians ranging from Robyn and Dua Lipa to Cardi B

Joyfully warped vision: Sasha Frost, Adam Deary and Emilio DoorgasinghThe Other Richard

Jane Austen’s waspish vision revealed the vanities, delusions and cynical financial calculations that underpinned most of the relationships of her day.

The element in which she thrived was repression; the heart constrained beneath the corset, the raging passion held firmly in place by that most important part of an Englishman’s anatomy, the stiff upper lip.

This production – which opened to acclaim at the Manchester Exchange in 2017 – rips off the corsets and liberates the lips so that the vibrant, sometimes even violent subtext is revealed. In place of Austen’s assiduous filleting of character we perceive her relationship merry-go-round as a highly physical graphic-novel-style sequence of encounters, heightened by everything from bath-foam frolics to chilling references to The Shining.

Any theatrical transfer needs to take into account the chemistry between the production and the building where it’s presented and at first, it must said, this much feted Austen upgrade (Austen powers?!) flounders in the Alexandra Palace Theatre. It comes direct from the smaller Rose Theatre, at Kingston, which will clearly have been a more conducive backdrop. It’s ironic that in a building designed in the same century that Austen lived most of her short life, this radical reboot can at first only be seen through its flaws. The exposition feels clunky, the characters caricatured and the delivery more forced than a baronet’s small talk at Buckingham Palace.

Yet gradually the joyfully warped vision of Jeff James’ and James Yeatman’s adaptation begins to take hold. This is in no small part due to the emotional truth and uncompromising intensity of Sasha Frost’s performance as the central character, Anne Elliot, who is forced to smash through the barriers imposed on her by the snobbery and excesses of her family in order to find happiness.

Alex Lowde’s arresting design thrusts us defiantly into two dimensions. The rippling blue plastic backdrop cartoonishly represents the fact that many of the characters depend for their livelihoods on the sea, while the up-and-down fortunes of the Elliot household are acted out on a white platform that dramatically changes angles throughout the evening as if to evoke the shifting tectonic plates of Anne’s heart.

Then, of course, there is the dance – the exuberant extraordinary dance, executed to a soundtrack featuring everyone from Robyn and Dua Lipa to Cardi B. James and Yeatman recognise the huge degree to which Austen’s sexual tensions are channelled on the dance floor. As Anne first grieves the loss of her first great love, Captain Wentworth (played with slick assurance by Fred Fergus, above left) and watches as both he and she encounter possible alternative partners, her emotional journey is heightened by increasingly anarchic choreography that owes more to TikTok than any dance manual.

 As with all Austen novels, money is as – if not more – important than sex. Wentworth becomes a more viable proposition to Anne’s family because – after going and making his career at sea – he has become successful and wealthy where her own status-obsessed father has gone into debt. In this updated reading, of course, the shift in the Elliot family’s attitude comes in their recognition that Anne has profoundly understood Captain Wentworth’s character in a way that they haven’t. It’s the sheer undertow of her isolation and misery at the start that gives weight to the production – every time a character irritates her she quite literally pushes them off the stage; the story can only be resolved when everyone else understands the truth of what she has known all along.

While the chemistry between Frost and Fergus is what holds this whole production together, there is much to be enjoyed along the way. Not least a riotous bath foam sequence in which flirtatious characters skid giddily across stage. There are many delightful minor comedy turns too, ranging from Helen Cripps’ petty, hypochondriacal Mary to Emilio Doorgasingh’s vain, green-bathrobe-clad Sir Walter. Before she wrote the novels which made her famous, Austen penned some pretty racy short stories. Happily, it’s more than possible to imagine her younger self whistling approval of this production from the wings.


In a riotous foam bath sequence flirtatious characters skid giddily across the stage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters