Left – Anna Steen and Miranda Daughtry. Cover – Miranda Daughtry, Anna Steen, Lizzy Falkland and Nathan O'Keefe. Photos – Chris Herzfeld
As behoves an assiduous reviewer, I prepared myself for Sense and Sensibility at the Dunstan Playhouse by re-reading Jane Austen’s book. She is much loved by many of her readers throughout the world and she and her novels are celebrated with the greatest gusto at wonderful festivals and so on. However, in truth, I find her rather tiresome most of the time, much as I appreciate her tongue-in-cheek humour as well as her spot-on clever observance of social behaviour. It’s probably her women that mostly get under my skin for the vapouring, manipulative, one-eyed, submissive objects they so often are – at the same time disliking very much those foppish, selfish, self indulgent, domineering and opinionated men who, when money gets tight, never think to work for it but expect it to come from wealthy relations or man-hungry wealthy heiresses.
One of the most famous sentences in English literature is the first one of probably Miss Austen’s best known book Pride and Prejudice. She says, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Whether it’s money wanting a mate or a potential mate wanting money, Austen stories are so often about that very thing. Money! That word is always there, often coupled with the mention of a name. As Mrs Jennings (Lizzy Falkland) says in her gossipy way, “Miss Grey?” “Fifty thousand pounds, my dear.”
So it was with some hesitancy that I set off for a two and a half hours (including interval) re-enactment of greedy men knowing it was their legal right to treat desperate women they can smile into matrimony as money bags, entitling her to nothing, or those men who had the good fortune to be born the first male in a family to the detriment of his siblings as far as money was concerned. So go ahead and tell me that Jane Austen is merely representing the English aristocracy and their desperate mamas as they were at the time and I will ask why such unlikeable characters are so much doted on (or doated on as she says) by so many admirers now. Enough of what I expected. Now to what I saw and heard in this production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
Curtain up, and two gentlemen respectably dressed, except for the oddity that they are wearing pretty bonnets, roller skate on to the stage displaying useful placards giving us the why, when and wherefore of the action. This little peculiarity is followed throughout the play with various characters riding tricycles (legs showing!) and carriages with parasol wheels and clacking coconut shells, a fairground barrel organ playing transition music, a chandelier bedecked with white ostrich feathers, chairs that slide on, afternoon tea on trays likewise, a human clock that says tick-tock, a feast with luxurious food (the same luxurious food) appearing and disappearing, banjo ukuleles and kazoos played to whistled accompaniment, men being women and a celebratory dance to The Romantics “What I like about you”. Traditionalists, cast away your strictures and enjoy this rollicking show as you are treated to the story more or less as written but with such humour that it is as if someone has put real life into these Austen stereotypes using only Austen’s own words, and has made it such fun!
The main characters are the women of the bereaved and bereft Dashwood family. Half brother, John (Dale March) promises his dying father to care for his step mother and half sisters with the money he was about to inherit but later concurs eagerly with his awful wife, Fanny (Lizzy Falkland) that that should incur as little money as possible, preferably none. Therefore, of course, the two teenage girls, Elinor 19 and Marianne 16, need wealthy husbands while the youngest, Margaret (Rachel Burke), at 13 still needs the care of her loving mother. Hence the stage is set for the hunt and the hunted. There is a simply delightful scene between Edward Ferrars (Nathan O’Keefe) who loves Elinor (Anna Steen) as he bumbles his way through a tongue-tied attempted conversation with her and both these characters are superb to watch. Nathan also plays his own brother, Robert, with splendid panache.
Elinor’s sister, Marianne (Miranda Daughtry) is tempestuous, exasperating, selfish, in love and thoughtless – a drama queen and some – but likeable and amusing for all that. She is only held back from social opprobrium by the constant soothing of Elinor and her mother and is loved (silently and stoically) by Colonel Brandon (Dale March). Alas for him, she’s in love with John Willoughby (Rashidi Edward), a newcomer who carried her home after a fall. Sir John Middleton (Geoff Revell) keeps everyone on the move and his Mrs. Ferrars, although making a very brief appearance, is very effective. So far so reasonably understandable. “Keeping it in the family” means that many of the characters are related to each other and people dash in and out, constantly visiting each other, gossiping shamelessly, conversing and conjecturing, assuming and assailing and generally muddying the waters for characters and audience alike. But it all sorts itself out in the end, despite the likelihood at one point that all are doomed to hopeless love and a miserable life.
It is mostly a very good cast with all except Marianne and Elinor playing, with splendid aplomb, more than one character. Acting honours go to Anna Steen for a beautifully controlled convincing performance. Above all it was funny and yet true to the tale and the playwright who won Playwright of the Year last year, Kate Hamill is to be congratulated on a lovely adaptation that really works.
That is not to say this production is perfect. Rachel Burke, while to be commended on her observance of young, silly girls, overdoes the role of Margaret so that the play loses balance at times. Caroline Mignone is a loving and kind Mrs. Dashwood but her Anne Steele is over the top too. Rashidi Edward was not convincing in the role of Willoughby. He failed to capture the character’s smooth and easy manner, comfortable in the rarefied world of English aristocracy, which led to the seduction of a girl and Marianne’s overwhelming love for him. His accent made articulation poor at times too.
The play was very ably directed by Geordie Brookman, and I think they must have had a lot of good laughs in rehearsal for the enjoyment of the cast is evident in the production. The set, designed by Ailsa Paterson, is impressive and adaptable, Geoff Cobham’s lighting creative, the music arranged by Stuart Day quirky and just right (except for an piano piece to accompany dialogue which was a sort of one note dirge and very distracting).
This is a play well worth seeing and the audience bore witness to their enjoyment of it in their prolonged applause and happy chatter on the way out. It runs until the 26th May. Really, don’t miss it.
State Theatre Company South Australia presents
Sense and Sensibility
by Kate Hamill based on novel by Jane Austen
Director Geordie Brookman
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | King William Road, Adelaide SA
Dates: 4 – 26 May 2018
Bookings: 131246 | adelaidefestival.com.au