Theatre review: Mansfield Park at Royal & Derngate

A scene from Mansfield Park
A scene from Mansfield Park

When it comes to theatre, interpretations of Jane Austen must be among the toughest to perform.

Not only is Jane Austen one of this country’s best loved authors - meaning there are always many fans waiting to criticise - but the nature of her work makes it a challenge to depict on stage.

So I was interested to see just how effective the latest staging of her novel Mansfield Park would be; a production which has been brought to the Royal & Derngate in Northampton from The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds this week.

The reason for the challenge in Austen’s work is that her storylines are based on subtlety. Set in the Regency era, Austen’s characters conform to the restrictions of their time. They are polite, they dance together, they sip tea together, but underneath it all there is a bubbling pot of venom and passion simmering away.

The trick of an effective staging of Austen seems to be to allow the author’s humour to shine through and to reveal enough of each character’s hidden thoughts, through the acting, to satisfy audiences as to what is really going on underneath all the manners and dance routines.

This production, I am happy to say, was extremely successful in doing this.

Mansfield Park is the story of young Fanny Price who is uprooted from her humble family home into the aristocratic household of her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram. She gradually becomes accustomed to being openly belittled by her aunts, but retains a sense of goodness which shines through and helps her make an all important decision when it comes to marriage.

Acting from the whole cast was superb. Fanny is played by Ffion Jolly who deftly displays both the unexpressed and expressed thoughts of a character who is hiding a deep love for a certain gentleman in her household.

Excellent performances were also offered by Laura Doddington as the shallow but winning Mary Crawford, Pete Ashmore as the caring and deeply moral Edmund and Leonie Spilsbury as the disloyal and money-grabbing Maria Bertram.

Geoff Arnold had the tough job of playing three characters and did this brilliantly, really lifting the play with his humorous intonations as the much misused Mr Rushworth.

The play is a brilliant study of the Regency marriage market and the difficulty of its contemporaries to stay true to themselves and their morals while trying to find the finest match. This is highly recommended for Austen fans or those who would like a gentle, funny introduction to her work.