Photo by: Chamber Opera Tours Photo by: Chamber Opera Tours

Review: Persuasion at the Shaw Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

Perhaps a bit of an odd one out in this year’s Camden Fringe programme is Persuasion: A Musical Drama, playing for one night only at the Shaw Theatre. Performed by Chamber Opera Tours from Chicago, this operetta set the plot of Jane Austen’s novel to a selection of classical music pieces by the likes of Handel and Beethoven.

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliott and Captain Frederick Wentworth, a former lover that she once rejected on the instruction of her godmother. When Anne’s cash-strapped father is forced to rent out the family’s stately home to Admiral Croft, who just happens to be Wentworth’s brother-in-law, the two exes are unexpectedly reunited. The subsequent misadventures of Anne and her family are narrated by Jane Austen herself, who talks her young niece and nephew through the action, along with the audience.

With a cast of thirty and a small orchestra tucked away somewhere backstage, this is a big production, which is nevertheless dominated by a single name: Barbara Landis. Landis has adapted the book, selected the music (picked from pieces in Austen’s personal collection) and written the lyrics. Oh, and she also plays the double role of Jane and Anne. Landis is undoubtedly a woman of many gifts: she has an excellent singing voice, and she has done an admirable job on the book and lyrics. Acting, however, is not one of her talents. I would put the quality of her attempt at upper RP on par with Dick Van Dyke’s ‘Cockney’ in Mary Poppins, with the added disadvantage that Landis has got such a massive hot potato in her mouth that it’s often quite hard to understand what she’s saying. And while she’s a credible Anne, she differentiates between her two characters by fitting Jane with the kind of exaggerated facial expressions that are more suitable to a show for very small children.

This is a recurring theme: the singing is uniformly beautiful and clear, while the acting achieves varying degrees of success. That being said, there are some lovely comic performances from John B. Boss as Anne’s father Walter and from Gretel Mink Hansen, who makes singing off key into an art form onto itself.

At three hours, the show is a bit of a test; there’s much of Austen’s characteristic beating about the bush done by most of the characters involved, which works fantastically in her novels, but not so much on stage. Some judicious pruning of the less important sub-plots would have done much good. Nevertheless, the piece is livened up considerably by some fantastic Irish dancing by Kieran Donahue, Peter Dziak and Ian Schwartz, which went down a treat with the whole audience. Another good shout is the set, which is dominated by projected photos of the various locations in which the play takes place. It’s a simple way of adding clarity and ambience to the show.

All in all, Persuasion is an ambitious project that’s perhaps more suited to the serious devotee than the casual fan. Is this my favourite Jane Austen adaptation ever? No, it’s not. Then again, Colin Firth in a see-through white shirt is pretty hard to beat, so that’s probably not an entirely fair comparison…

This show has now finished its run at the Shaw Theatre