Creating a feisty heroine in Mansfield Park

Review: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, adapted by Tim Luscombe, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until September 29.

Putting the Jane Austen masterpiece Mansfield Park on stage in a theatre as full of atmosphere as Bury’s Theatre Royal is an inspired idea but it’s also a potential minefield.

Every audience member who has read and loved the book will have their own version of the story in their heads. Also it is the only Austen classic where the heroine has been described, in some quarters, as dull.

Happily, director Colin Blumenau and writer Tim Luscombe have spotted these traps and neatly side-stepped them.

The result is a glorious production which bursting with life and energy – full of hypocrisy, intrigue and duplicity – oh, and a feisty, principled heroine.

Tim Luscombe has done a fantastic job reducing this lengthy novel down to a swift two hours on stage, injecting some well judged humour along the way, and making this a story about the games that people play – particularly if they are bored and have too much time on their hands.

Another potential pitfall was that this could have been a very talky, very stagey, very stiff production but Colin keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace, dispensing with the slow formal bows upon entering the room and using the different levels of the simple but effective set to keep the ten actors constantly in motion.

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The set, designed by Kit Surrey, has two levels and manages to conjure up a well-appointed, sun-lit drawing room, corridors in a house and an arbour in the grounds of a house.

But, for all the atmosphere provided by the theatre itself, the set and direction, it is the cast that make this production work. From the moment they stride onto the stage we know we are in safe hands.

We have a galaxy of flawed and at times disingenuous characters to marvel at. From Richard Heap’s growling patriarch Sir Thomas, to the kindly but easily swayed curate Edmund (Pete Ashmore) to the conniving brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford played with such relish by Samuel Collings and Kristin Atherton.

Edmund’s sister Maria (Leonie Spilsbury) is a cruel picture of social ambition while her suitor Mr Rushmore (Geoff Arnold) is a halting, hesitating rich fool completely out of his depth in such strong-minded company.

Watching and observing this flawed cross-section of society manoeuvre their way around one another is Fanny Price, played with kindly, but strong, moral exactitude by Ffion Jolly.

Tim and Colin make her a strong likeable heroine. She’s not prissy, she doesn’t preach but she cannot be swayed from the path she knows is right. It’s a strong, quiet, confident performance from Ffion Jolly who allows Fanny Price to hold her own against these bigger, brighter characters.

As an audience you love Fanny and you are rooting for her throughout. Fanny Price is not the wall flower that some have described her as. She’s a rock – firm and dependable.

Mansfield Park is Colin Blumenau’s swansong as a director at Bury Theatre Royal and it’s a wonderfully entertaining and brilliantly realised production to go out on.

Andrew Clarke

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