BWW Reviews: MANSFIELD PARK, Rose Theatre, October 22 2013
There's a time and a place for everything and I can promise you that Jane Austen in an inner city comprehensive at 15 years of age wasn't right for me. I did read Pride and Prejudice (again) and Emma at 26, by then a London sophisticate (at least, I thought so), and enjoyed their mix of morals and manners at the Manor House. And, in Theatre Royal Bury St Edmund's production (at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 26 October and on tour), that's exactly what we get in Colin Blumenau's faithful adaptation of the tale of faithful, if almost endlessly, unrequired love mediated through rituals as defined as those of any religion.
Fanny (Ffion Jolly) is taken in by wealthy relatives and is immediately resented by her cousins - except Edmund (Pete Ashmore) - and is treated as a kind of Regency Cinderella, especially by her Aunt Norris (Julie Teal). When cad about town Henry Crawford (Eddie Eyre) and his hedonistic sister Mary (Laura Doddington) take a house nearby, the marriage game begins. Soon Edmund's sister Maria (Leonie Spilsbury) is making a match for cash - never a smart move in the Austen canon - with stupid moneybags Mr Rushworth (Geoff Arnold) and true natures are revealed with just desserts served all round. It's all terribly clever, terribly, terribly arch and terribly, terribly, terribly English - but you knew that anyway.
This production makes great demands on its company of eight and all rise the the challenge of playing multiple roles very well. Standing out in an excellent cast are Ms Doddington as a kind of posh Barbara Windsor, the glass of sherry, the salacious tale and the sexy glance never far away; and Mr Arnold, who does a particularly impressive turn as the bumbling Rushworth. Best though, is Ms Jolly, who captures the stillness and intelligence of Fanny Price and her sudden rousings to passion - like a cat, she watches and understands all, and is not afraid to bare her claws. She's a million miles from her near namesake, Fanny Brice, but both women live on their not inconsiderable wits and survive in a hostile environment.
Of course, the comedy here is not the sort to get you slapping your thighs, howling with merriment, but it's undeniably funny and perceptive, the words and the actions defining fools and lovers, the virtuous and the dissolute, the happy and the unhappy in a way that satisfies. It's like a fine meal for the mind.