Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

Emma
by Jane Austen     adapted by Michael Bloom     directed by Sean Baker

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, December 2017

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Audio review of Emma
by Nicola Upson & Mandy Morton of Cambridge 105
A review of Emma 
by Barry Brown
Emma Woodhouse pirouettes verbally in the centre of a social vortex of her own devising as she attempts to orchestrate the lives of her Regency friends, spreading confusion and exposing some of the snobbery and hypocrisy of the period, driven by her own baseless but boundless self-satisfaction. So far, so tastefully un-dramatic, a series of measured encounters that can verge on the soporific, but below the surface of this elegant quadrille, the real lives of the characters are about to upend her and our expectations and shred her plans.

The fact that so much of this is below the measured surface of the story presents particular problems for an adaptation. We can’t hear the Author’s voice that entertainingly suggests the irony of the situation, only the dialogue, and we are pitched into a complicated set of relationships that can perplex. It is left to the principals to indicate the inner lives of the characters by looks and gestures and to propel the action by their reactions and too often, this can be buried in stock characterisations and a wallow in period detail.

Happily, this was not, on the whole, the case with this production. By and large, the bonnets did not get in the way of the Plot; which is not to say that it didn’t look a treat. The set (Sarah Deboys) was pared down to the essentials, with a small dais holding the few select items of furniture and the whole dominated by three large paintings (perhaps by Emma’s own hand) indicating the various locations. The lighting (James Wright) was particularly effective, holding each scene briefly in silhouette and flooding the stage with colour. The costumes, as we have come to expect from Dress Circle were wonderful and they were set off to perfection by the marvellous hair design (Hannah Curtis). The whole was propelled by a fine choice of music (Mike Milne) supported by discrete sound (Chris Hay) and props (Kate Crofts). In the Ball scene there was effortless period choreography (Ted Ridgway Watt and Gloria Milne). The whole thing looked like a Rowlandson cartoon, but was sufficiently abstract to accommodate the many short scenes and changes of location that might have hampered the pace.

As to the Cast, it was particularly good to see so many new (to Bawds) actors, testament to the strength of Cambridge Drama. As Emma, Kathryn Cussons darted about with just the right note of conspiratorial and playful intensity, driving the story and retaining our sympathy despite her youthful faults, slipping in and out of monologues and particularly effective when she stepped outside of the naturalism of the piece to physically manipulate the characters. She was also joyously believable when she realised her own imperfections and discovered true love. One might have looked for more of a spark between her and the rather solid Mr Knightly (James Inman) in their early encounters, but both of their confessions of passion at the end were very well done and affecting.

Similarly, Tracy James (Miss Bates) was particularly good when she captured the pathos of her situation as an amusing rustic foil and Peter Simmons (Mr. Woodhouse) when he betrayed his own selfish reasons for agonising so entertainingly about everyone else’s health. Rory Lowings (Frank Churchill) twinkled suavely in a world-weary way and had one tremendously timed put-down, Sarah Popa (Jane Fairfax) portrayed a rather charming self-effacement and Rebecca Hargrave (Harriet Smith) pursued various unsuitable partners with an engaging devotion before settling on the man of her dreams, the down to earth Andy Dunne (Robert Martin). Dave Foyle and Helen Leedham (Mr and Mrs Weston) brought their very considerable experience to the parts and convinced in their roles as the established couple.

However, for me, the particular joy of the evening was in the performances of Jonathan Totman (the oleaginous Mr. Elton) and Roz Fearon (his unexpected wife). The former, looking like a badly animated cymbal under his ludicrous clerical hat, gave his usual masterclass in physical comedy and the latter matched his peerless timing with tiny details that betrayed the inner life of her character. I particularly liked her lightning gestures that brought her squirming husband to heel and the way that she assumed that Mr Woodhouse must be deaf and stupid because he was old. These details suggested a real exploration of character and the Director is to be commended for bringing them and many others out in what was an entertaining and faithful celebration of Jane Austen’s comic masterpiece, much enjoyed by the audience and another feather in Bawds’ much decorated bonnet.