Touring – reviewed at Mirth, Marvel and Maud, London
It’s often been said that aspiring authors should write about what they know and Jane Austen is one of the best examples of this.
While Austen is often cited for her insight into the British landed gentry, it is her perspective on the 18th century notion of marriage and its ‘necessity’ for women’s economic security that really made her name – hitherto an unknown subject in literature. Austen The Musical follows Jane from the beginning of her writing career and the potential suitors who informed her later work.
Championing her literary prowess, Jane’s father George takes her manuscripts to London in the hope that she would be published. However, most publishers reject her novels, on the grounds that the subject is of little interest to readers and that writing is the preserve of men.
As time goes on, Jane’s mother’s desire to see her married intensifies, partly because ‘older’ brides are ‘less desirable’ and money’s tight in the Austen household. And all the while Jane pours her thoughts and feelings into letters to her sister Cassandra and, of course, to her novels…
The cast is made up of four actors, who manage to cover all the people who had an impact on Jane’s life, one way or another. In the titular role, Edith Kirkwood shines as the nascent author whose wit, ambition and insight are at odds with the spirit of the age. Much as you would expect with a figure like Jane Austen, Kirkwood’s facial expressions are just as revealing as her turn of phrase.
Jenni Lea-Jones as Mrs Austen (among other characters) is similarly expressive in inflection and facial expression, while Adam Grayson as Jane’s father, George, is a model of paternalistic altruism, though as Mr Clarke – the Prince Regent’s aide and confidante – he does get to play someone of a more slippery disposition.
Similarly, Thomas Hewitt’s Tom Lefoy is earnestness incarnate, but as the other male suitors, Hewitt shows a wider variety of temperaments. As the eager ‘Harris’, Hewitt channels the mannerisms of Eric Morecambe, which certainly made me laugh out loud.
This production, which is touring throughout the UK, does make use of the venues to the fullest. I caught the show at Mirth, Marvel and Maud in Walthamstow, and the cast frequently mingled amongst the audience, lending a greater intimacy to the proceedings.
The songs, which punctuate the show, organically fit within the framework of the narrative and within certain scenes, genuinely enhances the emotional resonance instead of acting as a hindrance. While fans of Austen will readily recognise the elements of her life that have a synergy with her books, it’s not necessary to know her life inside-out to enjoy the show.
Looking at her life as a whole, Jane Austen like most people was no stranger to tragedy and only had control in certain aspects of her life. But as this production shows, even though she never married in the end, her books are every bit her ‘children’, showcasing her wit and spirit in perpetuity.