Last night I had a wonderful experience: I attended an intelligently adapted and wonderfully acted version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in the only remaining working Regency theatre in England.

The Regency Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds ©Austenonly

The Regency Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds ©Austenonly

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Mansfield Park is fast-paced, intelligent and witty, retaining the best of the dialogue and action from Jane Austen’s novel. Mr Luscombe has good form regarding Jane Austen. He has previously adapted Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and is an avowed admirer of her.  As he writes in the play’s Programme Notes ( which include the full text of his adaptation) it is very difficult to omit characters and scenes :

Its hard cutting Jane Austen. I adapt her because I love her work. And so anything that goes is a little death, but a play is a very practical thing. It costs money. It can’t be so long that the audience miss the last bus home, and there is always a limit on the number of actors you can expect a theatre to employ…

Some characters were retained but never appeared, living their lives off-stage: Dr and Mrs Grant and Lady Bertram were relegated in this way. A pity, especially as I’m sure Mr Lucsombe would have had some fun with Lady Bertram’s languorous but occasionally lucid character. However, the constant refrain that “Mother is upstairs with a light headache‘ was very amusing, and I don’t think I was alone, last night, in wanting to join in the oft-repeated phrase. The roles of  Julia and Mr Yates were omitted completely.

Geoff Arnold as Mr Rushworth ©Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Geoff Arnold as Mr Rushworth ©Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Geoff Arnold, above, who played Tom Bertram, William Price and Mr Rushworth, was excellent. Each character was completely different, in both speech and posture. His Mr Rushworth was a complete triumph, and took over Mr Yates’ role in one of my favourite scenes from the novel, where he is found “ranting ” on the “stage”  in Sir Thomas’ study.

Samuel Collins and Kristin Atherton as Henry and Mary Crawford ©Austenonly

Samuel Collins and Kristin Atherton as Henry and Mary Crawford ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Henry and Mary Crawford were excellent; sophisticated beings causing havoc in the rural backwater of rich but repressed Mansfield. The gasp of horror from the audience when Henry announced that he wanted to make a tiny hole in Fanny Prices’ heart  was wonderful to behold. Many in the audience seemed to have fallen for Henry’s charms…up to that point. Which is, I suppose exactly as Jane Austen would have wanted it to be.

Kristin Atherton as Mary Crawford, Ffion Jolly as Fanny and Pete Ashmore as Edmund Bertram ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Kristin Atherton as Mary Crawford, Ffion Jolly as Fanny and Pete Ashmore as Edmund Bertram ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Fion Jolly was a great Fanny. Her reactions to the goings on around her were fabulously portrayed. But the award for best performance, to my mind at least, must be made to Pete Ashmore as Edmund. Edmund is, as you know, a tricky role for anyone to play. The urge to slap him, when reading the book, is often never far away. He can be kind but annoying, and an actor not attuned to playing him as a flawed but genuine and serious human, not as a paragon, will lose our sympathy very quickly. Last night we saw a manly, kind, upright but ever-so-slightly  flawed Edmund.  I didn’t want to slap him very often, if at all. Which in a theatre so intimate as at Bury was probably for the good of all concerned. Tim Luscombe’s direction in the notes to the play probably helped:

Edmund isn’t witty but mustn’t  be a “formal ,solemn, lecturer”, either.

He really wasn’t.

Richard Heap as Sir Thomas and Mr. Price was marvellous ( it’s almost like the Captain Hook/Mr Darling role reversal in “Peter Pan” isn’t it?) managing to successfully convey to us some of Sir Thomas’ wry humour, which is present in the novel but hardly ever portrayed in film or on stage in my experience.

The set was simple but clever: Town, Portsmouth and Mansfield were depicted on gauzes printed with Regency engravings behind a simple Repton-esque arcade:

Model of the set for Mansfield Park as designed by Kit Surrey ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Model of the set for Mansfield Park as designed by Kit Surrey ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The clatter of the Portsmouth scene, compared to the elegance and calm of Mansfield was very cleverly done, most of the cast suddenly appearing as the unruly Price brood, cavorting around the stage.

The Set for Mansfield Park, Stage Design by Kit Surrey ©Austenonly

The Set for Mansfield Park, Stage Design by Kit Surrey ©Austenonly

This is a long novel, and trying to cram all its content into a production lasting only two and a half hours seems an impossible task. But last night the cast and crew at Bury St Edmunds succeeded in portraying the majority of the action, and moreover, retaining many important moments which I did think might be omitted. The themes of the abolition, the slave trade, education of women, the politics of landscaping etc  were only alluded to: the interaction between the lovers and the consequences of their misplaced affections was the main business of the evening. But I’m not complaining, for to manage to portray the main themes of the novels in an economical but exciting a manner was a triumph.

The director, Colin Blumenau is also an admirer of Jane Austen and his past championing of the lost 18th century theatrical repertoire makes him the perfect director of this intimate production, in a theatre with which he is wholly familiar:  he was the Artistic Directory at the Bury theatre for 15 years. His knowledge of the theatre of the era was evident in small but telling details: for example, Maria’s gestures when acting out a scene in Lovers Vows were taken directly from Henry Siddons’ Rhetorical Gestures and Actions or so it seemed to me. These tiny references to 18th century life and its theatre were delicious bonuses for a knowledgeable audience but didn’t detract for one minute from the fast pace of the tale. As Mr. Blumenau writes in the plays’ programme:

How fabulous once again, to find myself in the hands of an incomparable writer whose command of our English language makes it a joy to work with- to speak and to hear. The fact that her major works  are in novel form only gives rise to regret that she didn’t persevere with her attempts  at dramatic writing…and once again how gratifying to know that you are working with the work of a woman. Disenfranchisement and disempowerment did nothing to stifle her voice in the literature of the period. Once again following a long tradition of great women writers the like of Wollstonecraft, Inchbald Cowley and Centlivre,  we find a unique female voice is out-writing so many men. I like that a lot.

So do I.  And if you want to see this really inspired production, clearly created with much love, affection and, above all, intelligence, then you have your chance. It is still playing at Bury ( a prefect venue given its size and age) till the end of this week, and then  it goes on tour, dates and locations here. I would urge you to go. You will not, I think, regret it.