REVIEW: A fresh and witty look at Austen’s classic novel

Emma

Emma

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Emma by Martin Millar and Doon MacKichan, performed by The Archway Theatre Company, Horley, June 11

It must be tricky to adapt a popular classic for the stage. Performers have to remain faithful to the source material, while still offering audiences something that feels fresh and engaging.

The Archway Theatre Company has chosen a sideways approach with their performance of Emma. It’s not a beat-for-beat adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, but an innovative take on the story by Martin Millar and Doon MacKichan.

It begins in Jane Austen’s home. The novelist is asleep after working on her new book, so her nieces sneak into the room and attempt to act out the tale. When Jane wakes up, she decides to steer the girls in the right direction and joins in the fun by taking on the role of Mr Knightly.

It’s kind of extended framing device. Jane and the girls comment on the action throughout their show and, in a bizarre twist, some of the story’s characters actually start talking back.

It’s potentially confusing and sometimes you have to pay close attention to keep track of who’s playing who. Subtle details make it easier, though. Serena Bravery-Rogers effortlessly switches between Jane Austen and Mr Knightly, revealing the buttons of her coat and speaking in a deep, authoritative voice to bring the wealthy landowner to life. She also conveys Jane’s admiration for her characters in a way that urges the audience to care too.

Adrian Bailey is particularly impressive, throwing himself into four roles – Mr Woodhouse, Mr Elton, Robert Martin and Mrs Coles – with only a few props to help him capture the starkly different characters.

It’s a chaotic way to tell a story but the director, Gary Andrews, sets a quick pace, which creates plenty of funny moments as the performers keep shifting from one character to another.

Sam Bouglas gets some of the play’s biggest laughs as the naive Harriet Smith (and fourth niece), sobbing loudly as her heart gets broken and then even louder as Emma clumsily tries to comfort her. The young Kate Palmer does well too, amusingly adopting the mannerisms of the old maid Miss Bates and provoking sympathy in her hurt expression after Emma insults her.

Ben Andrew gets a few chuckles with his appearance as the careless heartthrob Frank Churchill. Ben makes the character just a little too perfect, encouraging the audience to judge him more harshly when he starts displaying unlikable behaviour.

Both Rebecca Johnson (Niece 3, Mrs Weston and Mrs Elton) and Elle Bass (Niece 2, Jane Fairfax) do well with some challenging roles and summon some loud and bubbly energy to play the excitable nieces.

Finally, Hannah Elmer, despite only playing one part, leaves a lasting impression as Emma Woodhouse, portraying a smart, yet selfish young woman whose confidence inevitably makes her overestimate her own abilities.

Maybe Jane Austen’s stories aren’t for everyone, but this wry and witty look at one of her best novels might be enough to win over a few more readers.