Theatre review – Persuasion

Persuasion

Review by Andrew Morris (for Essential Surrey)

The Yvonne Arnaud Mill Studio, Guildford until Saturday April 25

Jane Austen was an astute observer of early 19th century social customs. And she was arguably at her most perceptive in Persuasion, her last completed novel, published shortly after her death in 1817 at the tender age of 41.

In a whimsical but well observed adaptation by Hotbuckle Productions, 27 year-old Anne Elliot is intelligent, literary and sensitive.

And on the shelf.

Eight years earlier she had fallen in love with Frederick Wentworth, a dashing young naval officer. But she had been persuaded that Frederick was not a good enough match and, against her better judgement and natural instinct, severed the relationship.

But now the class tables have been deliciously turned.

Captain Wentworth returns imbued with honour and wealth, while Anne’s own profligate father has ensured the Elliot fortune is much diminished. The family estate Kellynch Hall is rented to Admiral Croft and his wife Sophia, Wentworth’s sister, while the vain and snobbish Elliot patriarch Sir Walter decamps to lodgings in fashionable Bath with his empty-headed eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

Frederick now ignores poor Anne, either through revenge or indifference.

A helter-skelter journey across the country follows before we find any answers. And on the way we encounter more match-seeking, fortune-hunting and a pivotal accident.

The brilliantly inventive company of just four actors somehow manages to portray the complete panoply of characters, effortlessly switching with ne’er a slip twixt costume and lip.

Hotbuckle founder and Persuasion adapter Adrian Preater plays Sir Walter perfectly, as a vain, preening, oleaginous buffoon, who may have squandered his family’s fortune but who remains a baronet. And class is all that matters, isn’t it? Moments later, Adrian becomes the mild, tweed-clad Charles, more interested in hunting than soothing his soppy wife’s brow. And then downcast, widowed poet Captain Benwick.

With a seamless change of accent, shawl or gait Clare Harlow is ditzy Mary, social climber Elizabeth or class-conscious Lady Russell, who turned Anne against Frederick all those years ago.

And Peter Randall is equally convincing whether playing rebuffed but still proud Captain Wentworth, devious cousin William Elliot or fawning family solicitor Mr Shepard.

The single constant is Emily Lockwood as Anne. With a mellifluous tone and deft gestures, she vividly conveys amusement at her superficial family, indifference to social niceties, and heart-rending regret that she was persuaded to reject the man she loved.

Ms Austen’s satirical rapier may best pierce the customs of her age, but her overriding message is permanent: be constant and be true to your own feelings.

The Mill Studio lends itself perfectly to this intimate production in which the chameleon-like actors are also the orchestra, set-movers and prop-creators. See it if you can.

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