Persuasion, Rosemary Branch Theatre, review: ‘Confusing adaptation of Austen’s maturest work’

Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliott in Persuasion at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliott in Persuasion at the Rosemary Branch Theatre - Credit: Archant

I must declare an interest: I am a fully-fledged Austen-phile.

I know all six of her perfect novels inside out, so I was naturally looking forward to seeing one of my favourite of her works, Persuasion, adapted for the stage.

Sadly, the source material and its timeless story of love lost and eventually won again is one of the very few positives of this show.

Persuasion is a complex novel with a vast array of characters and story threads, so with a cast of just six and 90 minutes, the adaptation needed to be seriously trimmed if it was ever going to work.

Ambitiously, if not wisely, though, this is a too-faithful adaptation from writer-director Bryony J Thompson, who has most of the cast each playing four or five of the story’s central characters.

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Only the leads, Captain Frederick Wentworth (unconvincing romantic Philip Honeywell) and Anne Elliot (Rose McPhilemy, who captures Anne’s constancy well) are lucky enough to just play one character.

The rush to tell the story – and it really is a rush – means that unless you remember the book well, you will struggle to keep up. And I question if we really needed to know that minor character Henrietta Musgrove has a romantic “understanding” with her cousin, Mr Hayter.

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The confusion is only increased by the fact that the actors stay on stage at all times except for the 15-minute interval, with no costume tweaks to signify when they have become another character entirely.

There’s even one bizarre moment when Louisa Musgrove (Sarita Plowman) has to put her arm around an invisible Henrietta because cast member Beatrice Rose (who puts in the best performance of the night) is still in another of her roles as Anne’s silly sister Mary.

To try and get around the confusion, Thompson has the characters bizarrely vocalising their inner thoughts in the third person so we know when a character has switched.

But this narrative device simply does not work – in the first half, there is barely any dialogue and it mostly sounds as if they are just reading from the book.

All it achieves is emotional distance, which for a tale that is all about regret, longing and patience is deeply tragic.

The white-washed set is a blank canvas, but as the story is told almost entirely in exposition, I could not make it become the picturesque village Uppercross, Lyme Regis in the winter, or the rainy Bath.

Austen’s maturest work is rarely adapted – perhaps now I can see why.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

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