BWW Review: AUSTEN THE MUSICAL, Mirth, Marvel and Maud Theatre

BWW Review: AUSTEN THE MUSICAL, Mirth, Marvel and Maud Theatre

BWW Review: AUSTEN THE MUSICAL, Mirth, Marvel and Maud TheatreJane Austen is our Alexander Hamilton - in that her face is pictured on the £10 note - so why not adapt her life into a musical? Well, Miss Austen (and that "Miss not Ms" is important) may be one of this country's greatest female authors without a husband, but can her life's narrative arc carry drama akin to that of the ten dollar founding father without a father?

Obviously not - whose could? - but Rob Winlow has fashioned a diverting, grown-up, pleasant (but not without its bite) chamber musical that captures some of the dilemmas faced by the quiet girl who scribbled immortal novels in a Hampshire rectory.

We do not get too many of the famous quotes - though the most famous of them all is said by Jane's mother - as the play tracks Jane's sentimental education in the hard school of the upper middle class Georgian marriage market.

We meet her first as a clever if somewhat mardy teen, sure of her mind but swept off her feet by Tom Lefroy, an Irish law student, whose sponsors soon force him to break it off - Jane never really recovers. Another lover dies suddenly and another, a highly "suitable" match, cannot fire the love for which Jane craves and he is, unusually if not quite scandalously, rejected in a decision that costs Jane and her family the security only money could bring.

We also see her struggles, championed by her indefatigable father, to be published and, once prejudice is overcome, some of her success, but she's gone too soon. Her novels live on, selling in tens of millions, a staple of school curricula (though being forced to read Austen at 14 put me, and lots of other lads I'm sure, off her work for a decade). She is, of course, a major earner for the BBC through its big budget costume drama adaptations exported overseas. We've never had more Austen in our culture, remarkable for a woman dead for over 200 years.

Back at the show, there's enough money to buy Mr Darcy a new shirt, but not much more, stripping the production back to its acting, script and songs - which is what I like most about musicals anyway.

Edith Kirkwood, peeping out from behind her tousled ringlets all coquettish charm and dedication to her writing, gives us a fine eponymous heroine, forthright but fragile, (eventually) committed to her "children" - the books - having buried her romantic heart. Kirkwood sings well and, in a space not sympathetic to acoustics nor lighting, it's wonderful to report that we hear every word of every song, nicely balanced by Arlene McNaught on keyboards.

Jenni Lea-Jones, Thomas Hewitt and Adam Grayson play all the other characters and, while continual changes in accents can be a little wearing and hats, masks and glasses necessary if slightly distracting props to signal a new character's arrival on stage, the four strong ensemble is a little stretched at times. All sing well though, and there's some fine comic work on show too.

Rob Winlow's songs are pleasing, especially when the cast sing in harmony, with more than a hint of Gilbert & Sullivan in the patter numbers. One occasionally hankers for strings in the more emotional melodies, but one can't expect too much in a fringe venue and what we get is plenty most of the time.

The audience amongst whom I sat were mostly women, though (as both the male director and male writer prove) Austen's work is universal in its appeal, as all great art must be. See it if you're a fan and, if you're not, see it anyway, as this show provides classy entertainment, a sophisticated look at the position of women in Georgian society (with some parallels for today - "JK Rowling not Joanne Rowling, or no published novel for you!") and it may inspire you to read the precise prose and needle sharp wit of the woman whose own broken heart drove her to unparalleled literary acclaim.

Austen The Musical continues at the Mirth, Marvel and Maud Theatre until 24 January and on tour.

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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