The new adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma is on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 10 June
Two centuries after she departed this mortal coil, Jane Austen remains one of the UK’s most popular authors. She may have only written six novels, but hey, they’ve certainly worked for her (if only, sadly, posthumously): film versions, sequels, prequels and all manner of adaptations of every yarn she wove are constantly reinvented for the contemporary audience while balls, conferences and festivals are held around the world in her honour every year.
And of course, when the new £10 note is released later this year, adorned with an illustration of Austen, we will continue to be reminded of the writer’s iconic status (which is ironic, really, given that in her entire life she only earned around £40,000 in today’s money).
But while we can only imagine what Jane would have made of her literary life after death, it’s probably safe to say that the current revival of her fifth novel – a brand new Tim Luscombe adaptation, produced in collaboration with the Production Exchange – would most definitely not rattle the sensibilities of even Austen’s most timorous, vapour-attack prone characters. In the main, we’re on totally traditional territory here, caught up in the gentle whirlwind created by bright young people-person Emma Woodhouse and her misplaced matchmaking ways with the folk in her immediate social circle, which of course leads to a whole muddle of misunderstandings, lots of lively lines, plenty of life lessons learned by all concerned and an ultimately delightful denouement.
While Libby Watson’s open wooden circle set cleverly represents both interior and exterior spaces in a distinctly modern way, it feels somehow mismatched with the perfectly period costumes (flowing empire line dresses for the ladies; breeches and riding boots for the men – hoorah!) and the conventional style that dictates the overall pace of the rest of the production as a whole.
Mismatched set aside, though, the cast – who represent a theatrical coalition masterclass – keep attention levels up for most of the time, whether or not there’s a drugget on the parlour floor or a discrete bourdaloue in the corner.
Bethan Nash is as charismatic and feisty as one would expect the eponymous leading lady to be, Phillip Edgerly is suitably dashing as Mr Knightley, Kate Copeland turns the tedious Miss Bates into a delicious depiction of a dullard with a heart of gold, and Polly Misch is adorable as the delectably ditzy Harriet.
There were times, however, when I felt that I was watching a very good radio play rather than a live action drama. But as Emma herself says: “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other” – and die-hard Austen devotees will most probably love this production.