Review: Sense and Sensibility – a sparking romantic romp

Erin Harrington reviews Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Penny Ashton from Jane Austen’s novel, directed and choreographed by Hillary Moulder, at The Court Theatre, Saturday 11 February, 2023.

I didn’t come to Jane Austen until quite late – my 30s. When I was assigned to read Pride and Prejudice in third form English I was too dumb to understand Austen’s dry wit, which was compounded by an internalised misogyny that meant I’d swallowed the line that ‘feminine’ works were light and frivolous and therefore lacking. Light, maybe, but frivolous and lacking no, and I missed out on so much: comedy, intrigue, longing, barbed quips, dances, misunderstandings, social commentary, desire, bold characterisation, family drama, wonderful women, and very many frocks.

These elements are teased out beautifully in The Court Theatre’s joyful production of Sense and Sensibility, directed and choreographed by Hillary Moulder. This sparkling (there’s a feminine word again) commission is written by Penny Ashton, whose terrific Austen- and Dickens-themed solo shows have toured extensively here and abroad over the last ten years. Those familiar with Ashton’s comic sensibility, and her love for the source material, will have an inkling of what to expect. Those who are new should buckle up.

Sense and Sensibility, for those who haven’t read it (like teenaged me), charts the romantic fortunes of two young Dashwood sisters, restrained and sensible Elinor (Bianca Paine) and passionate Marianne (Natasha McAllister). We’re in Regency-era rural England. When the sisters’ loving father dies, they, their mother and their little sister are rendered destitute because of patriarchal lines of inheritance. Their insipid elder half-brother John takes the estate, and despite promising to provide for the women he is convinced by his cruel wife not to share it. Thrown out of their family home, and supported by a distant relative, the sisters must look to marry to improve their station (and that of their family) – but the course of true love (etc).

Four other performers – Rebekah Head, Kathleen Burns, Kim Garrett and Eilish Moran – play twenty characters between them, racing at speed between camp (Garrett as awful sister-in-law Fanny), restraint (Head’s reserved Colonel Brandon), swaggering charm (Burns as the sexy cad Willoughby, oh my), and emotional richness (Moran as mother Mrs Dashwood). The performances are deft and nuanced, working to achieve a fine balance between the silly and the sweet. Moreover, it’s a joy to watch people having so much fun on stage.

And what a beautiful stage it is. Julian Southgate’s delicious set is a living illustration of a Georgian-era thrust stage complete with proscenium arch and Grecian pillars, painterly backdrops, loads of moving set pieces and comedy props (including more animals that you’d expect – hello aggro peacock). Tina Hutchison-Thomas’ clever costumes, designed for swift changes and some magnificently comic flourishes, are augmented with an array of slightly wonky wigs, moustaches and hats. Sound design is bombastic, and dramatic lighting states change swiftly. Ashton’s script whips us around, offering staccato scenes and speedy shifts in time and setting. Many are marked by comic vignettes and dancing, choreographed by Moulder, as characters glide straight-faced across the stage as if at a ball.

But there are some challenges, mostly ones the production has set for itself by going for a full-tilt maximalist approach to the demanding script, both of which emphasise theatrical conceit. By themselves these elements work very well and make thematic and tonal sense; I love the heightened, storybook staging of the raging storm in which Marianne wrecks her ankle and is rescued dramatically by Willoughby (and his horse). Together, though, it’s a lot, and it clearly places significant demands on everyone, onstage and off. Most obviously, some transitions on opening night are under-lit and very muddy, which erodes the pace and makes things hard to track. And despite the obviously deadpan tableaux that precede the play, dramatizing Mr Dashwood’s deathbed moments, it takes the audience a good while to figure out the grammar of the play, particularly that we are encouraged to laugh, a lot, at the combination of panto-level absurdity, farce, knockabout comedy and straight-faced drama. Perhaps the play’s tone hasn’t been signaled well in advance.   

Nonetheless, this production doesn’t throw the heart of the story away for the sake of a joke, in part because it allows the sisters, Elinor in particular, to play it straight. In the final minutes true love wins out (as it must) and the sisters strengthen their bond. As declarations of love are shared it’s so earnest and heartfelt, so beautifully romantic, that both my companion and I feel quite teary. The final image is perfection. Gah! After an evening of some of my favourite silly things – ridiculous characterisation, visual gags, wardrobe malfunctions, arch humour, Eilish Moran giggling inanely and Kathleen Burns in drag – that’s quite the achievement.

More than that, we come away happy and feeling good, and not just because of the delicious ‘Gin Austin’ cocktails offered at the bar. Comedy is hard to do – it’s serious stuff – and this is bloody funny. Just ask the women behind me who whispered a running commentary on how wonderful they thought the actors were. Female actors rarely get such opportunities to really let rip, and I commend The Court for supporting more women to direct mainstage productions. It might take a while to settle in if you have come hoping for a straight period drama, but if you meet the play where it’s at and loosen up a bit there’s more than enough to win you over. Swoon.

Sense and Sensibility runs at The Court Theatre until 11 March, 2023.

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