Review: VANITY FAIR, Open Bar Theatre

A charmingly chaotic evening of outdoor theatre

By: May. 09, 2024
Review: VANITY FAIR, Open Bar Theatre
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Review: VANITY FAIR, Open Bar Theatre Pub garden theatre specialist Open Bar Theatre has returned for a spring season with a deft and slightly chaotic version of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Dealing with the fortunes of two young women, the story explores early 19th-century English society, specifically how money and ambition can define a person's fate. 

We follow friends rich and naïve Amelia and ruthlessly ambitious orphan Becky Sharp through the world of Vanity Fair as they navigate their way through British Regency society as Napoleon rampages through Europe. 

A hugely energetic cast of four play 26 characters and declare 200 costume changes in the production. It is a breathless feat of agility and adaptation, with often cast members changing characters as they simultaneously change costumes. It is familiar territory for anyone who has seen an Open Bar production before, but it doesn't diminish the huge skill and dexterity involved.

The cast fight valiantly against frequent aircraft noise, often gamely including it in the dialogue. Their casual asides and frequent ad-libs add to the jovial atmosphere in the best way. Open Bar's signature style always contains some audience participation, with no lack of it here, but done in a gently mocking and always kind manner.

Ben Galpin is very funny, particularly as the simpering Miss Pinkerton and awkward Jos Crawley who blusters around with a cravat so large he appears to have no neck to speak of.

Princess Donnough, who appeared as Juliet in Open Bar Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet last year, returns as a sweet and innocent Amelia. Her version of the assertive Miss Crawley is funny and very knowing.

Felicity Sparks is a rather shrill Becky Sharp and revels in the gruff pomposity of Mr Osbourne. Open Bar stalwart Thomas Judd is customarily engaging; charming as the decent Dobbin and hilariously dim as arrogant Rawdon Crawley.

Review: VANITY FAIR, Open Bar Theatre

There are many ways of reading Thackerey's tale, but Nicky Diss' adaptation places Amelia firmly as the moral compass of the story, with Becky as a 19th-century hustler; duplicitous, heartless and not particularly likeable. Thackeray's satire is also ramped up to the max, as the performance is very amusing.

The set and costumes are deceptively simple, including some very clever design. No space is wasted, with every small box, window and handle used to convey the story.

It's refreshing to see an outdoor theatrical adaptation of anything other than Shakespeare. It's also likely that fewer people know the story of Becky Sharp and her social climbing, but this production is fairly easy to follow and doesn't take itself too seriously. The main issue with the production is its length; on one hand it's quite a feat to squeeze Thackerey's epic novel into three hours, but the pace starts to lag towards the end of the production, contrasting the zippy pace that precedes it.

That said, this is a clever and deftly performed production. Another theatrical pleasure from a rather unique company.

Open Bar Theatre's Vanity Fair is touring Fuller's Pub gardens until 1 June


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