Review: Persuasion at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and is set most definitely in the counties of Avon and Somerset in the early part of the 19th century. It is a tragi-romance, and although there is some humour to be found in the novel, it is essentially written in earnestness. In the main, the story concerns the 27-year-old daughter of an impoverished noble wanting, nay needing, to marry; and the travails this entails as she watches in horror and amusement her relatives’ follies and dalliances. Her life changes forever though, when she encounters the man she had been engaged to more than seven years ago, and has not seen in as many years.

“Other people will try to persuade you. You must listen to your heart.”

A classic British novel which tells of a time passed; when morals, ideologies, customs, behaviours and habits were all so very different from the present. Perhaps the appeal here is that this evokes a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for change; or perhaps we just like to look at and laugh at the folly of our ancestors knowing that our lives are infinitely changed. Whatever the case, we expect to see a production that mirrors and compliments the author’s intent… and thereby lies the rub.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

On walking into Manchester’s celebrated in-the-round theatre we are greeted with a huge, looming cream-coloured rectangle, taking up most of the stage area. Around this are positioned multifarious sound and lighting paraphernalia, and the whole is lit with a cold blueish wash. A body is lying face down on top of this oblong. It’s female, she has dreadlocks, in modern dress, and seems dead. The cast are seated on the front row of the audience, in costume, and even change their costumes in full view of us all. It’s all a little strange.

First, it was obvious where the budget for this show went. On this rectangle. The omnipresent block is on two levels and the top half is a turntable which moves round at various points in the play. There is no set, no props, and nothing else is ever brought on for a scene. The scenes change fast and furiously, completely seamlessly, and we are expected to keep up with this without being given any visual stimulae to aid us. There is even a point where one character finishes speaking in one scene, stays exactly where she is and continues speaking for the start of the second scene as a different character, without so much as voice or body language change. The costumes are modern, but really rather strange. None of the costumes really seem to signify the character in any way, and are obviously not meant to be completely realistic.

“The problem is it is impossible to know what will happen in the future.”

The only thing to change this monotony is towards the end of the first act, when the action moves to the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The cast strip off revealing sexy swimsuits underneath, and a seemingly never-ending flow of foam cascades from above onto this rectangular block. The cast slip and slide in it and across it much to the laughter and approbation of the audience. This is followed immediately by Louisa, who slips once too often and has ketchup poured over her by Anne, again to much laughter since this is funny. It is only afterwards that we learn that it was in fact tragic, and she fell over the edge of a cliff!

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The language of the play is also at odds with this highly modern vision from director Jeff James. It’s very similar to watching a Shakespeare play in modern costumes whereby the language and business (such as sending letters etc) simply do not befit the updating. And yet – out of nowhere – Anne suddenly half-way through the second act screams the line, “Shut the f&$! up!” It jars and is out of place with the rest of the dialogue. However, if all the dialogue had been modernised in this way, I may well have enjoyed the play more.

Basically, I think what I am trying to say is that I do not believe that this adaptation is true to the author, nor is it at all clear. A mixed production at best. It is at one and the same time ultra-contemporary in concept and execution, and yet firmly fixed in the early 1800s with the language and references.

Fortunately the saving grace of this play is that the acting is really very good. All the cast invested a huge amount into their roles and this paid its dividends. Lara Rossi is a rather moody and sullen Anne, whilst her more frivolous female peers are played excellently by Cassie Layton (Elizabeth and Louise) and Caroline Moroney (Mrs. Clay/Henrietta). In fact, there has been – and still is – much bemoaning that there are so few plays with strong female leads. This play is quite the opposite; there are many strong female characters here.

The male roles do seem less defined than the female ones, but Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth is true and grounded throughout and very believable.

“Love can save your life. But love is the problem.”

Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24th June.

Review: Pride and Prejudice at Greenwich Theatre

Two actors playing all 21 characters in an adaptation of one of the most popular novels of all time. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, nothing. Not a thing. In fact I may need to issue a gushing alert for this review, because I loved Two Bit Classics’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice so much I’m already trying to work out how I can fit in a return visit. Hilarious, inventive, yet completely faithful to Austen’s original text, it’s a work of genius and I didn’t want it to end.

Photo credit: Carrie xxxx
Photo credit: Carrie Johnson

Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood play all the characters – and that really does mean all the characters. At two and a half hours long, this is not an abridged version of the story, and so we have Bennets, Bingleys, Lucases, Mr Darcy, Mr Wickham, Mr Collins, Lady Catherine… A couple of minor characters get the chop, but anyone with any significance to the plot makes an appearance, and gets the opportunity to narrate their own part in the story.

With so many parts to play, there’s an obvious need to make each one distinct, and this characterisation is where the production really excels. Each individual has their own unique identifiers – be it a habit, an accessory or piece of clothing (often produced from one of the many nooks concealed around Dora Schweitzer’s abstract set), their way of speaking or their bearing – and we always know exactly which of Austen’s brilliant creations we’re looking at, often before they’ve even started speaking. There’s also a fair bit of gender switching, which proves yet another source of fun, with Nick Underwood taking on at least four female roles from the giggling Kitty to the demure Jane, and Joannah Tincey regularly sweeping aside her skirt to reveal the trousers of Mr Bingley.

The production is fully aware of its limitations and doesn’t try to gloss over them, but instead plays them for laughs. And so Mary – the forgotten Bennet sister – is replaced by a music stand, while one of the biggest laughs of the evening is prompted by the inventive recreation of Pemberley’s family portraits.

Photo credit: Laura Martin

Most mind-blowing of all is the stamina of the performers, who never flag in energy and easily hold the audience’s attention for the entire two and a half hours. Under the direction of Abigail Anderson, the action is non-stop, moving seamlessly from one episode to the next, with the actors frequently having to play several characters even within one scene, yet they never falter. This astonishing feat of endurance and dexterity alone justifies the standing ovation at the end of the evening.

For P&P fans and newbies alike, this is a glorious celebration of Austen’s book; the drama, comedy and romance we know and love are all there to be enjoyed almost word for word. But with so many ‘classic’ adaptations already in existence, this production brings with it a unique twist that makes the story feel simultaneously fresh and familiar, and – dare I say it – even funnier than the original.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: The Two Bit Classics, Pride and Prejudice

It’s one of the world’s most popular love stories, the ultimate boy meets girl romantic comedy. Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen in the early 19th century, has been adapted countless times for stage and screen, in many different ways – but perhaps never quite like The Two Bit Classics’ production, which is about to return for a second UK tour from October. Joannah Tincey’s adaptation features just two performers: Jo herself, and her husband, Nick Underwood.

Pride and Prejudice - UK Tour

The unique production was last staged in 2014, when it was described by A Younger Theatre as “a delightful little gem of theatre that pulses with comedy and energy”. As the company prepares to tour again, Nick explains, “We decided to bring the show back because people enjoyed it so much the first time! We had so many wonderful emails from people, many of whom wanted to see it again. We love playing the show, we enjoy working together. It’s a great fit all round.”

Pride and Prejudice has brought us some of literature’s most iconic characters, from the romantic to the ridiculous. “The characters are immediately recognisable, fallible, funny and engaging,” says Jo. “Austen creates these fully fleshed characters, full of strengths and weaknesses. We recognise ourselves in there somewhere, I think.”

But does a cast of just two actors mean we only get to enjoy two of these brilliant creations? “Definitely not!” says Jo. “21, in fact,” clarifies Nick.

Jo explains what inspired her unique adaptation: “I’d been doing a lot of work as an actor on various multi-role style productions – including some Shakespeare and Dickens. Each time I was involved in one, it struck me how clear the language becomes when you have to use it to tell an audience who you are and what you want (when you’re changing characters from moment to moment, that’s important!). I love Austen’s wonderful language and wit and it struck me that here was a way to bring it to life theatrically.

Pride and Prejudice is such a wonderful story and there are so many double-acts within it: Jane and Lizzy, Darcy and Lizzy, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Lydia and Kitty, Bingley and Darcy…”

“All the words we say are ones that Austen wrote herself,” adds Nick. “Jo didn’t need to invent dialogue. Characters use Austen’s text, we talk to the audience in character, and our job is to grow that relationship each night. It’s a really immediate and exciting way to work.”

Bringing to life so many characters with just two performers naturally presents quite a challenge. “An actor’s job is to find the truth in every character, otherwise we’re wasting an audience’s time,” Nick explains. “That doesn’t mean characters can’t be funny, but we aren’t sending them up in any way. If this was two hours of silliness, people would get bored. This is two hours of pure Austen. As for other challenges, well, you need to be pretty fit to play 21 characters between the two of you…”

Photo credit: Carrie Johnson
Photo credit: Carrie Johnson

Unique it may be, but die-hard fans of the novel need not fear – The Two Bit Classics’ production remains completely faithful to Austen’s original. “The straightest form of the story is the novel of course, and any adaptation will offer a different experience from that,” says Jo. “Screen adaptations or more traditional stage adaptations usually need to invent dialogue – because Austen didn’t write a script! There’s always something new in there. Our take is two actors, but our language is as pure as it gets.”

Both Jo and Nick agree what excites them most about this second tour is new audiences for their show, and a fresh chance to play the story each night. “The audience are a part of the show, as it’s their imagination and response to our story-telling that brings the show alive,” says Jo. “We want them to go away having actively experienced the story of Darcy and Lizzy, having heard and felt the brilliance of Austen’s writing in a way that is really immersive.”

Nick concludes, “I hope they go away having laughed and having been moved by the brilliance of Austen’s story and characters.”

Pride and Prejudice opens at Preston Guild Hall from 6th-8th October and all tour dates can be found at