This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edith Wharton, the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Given everything else that’s happening this year, there’s every chance her anniversary will be overlooked. At least this is not the case at the Brockley Jack, where 20 South Street and Grey Swan have adapted her 1917 novel Summer for the stage.
Eighteen year old Charity Royall (Joanne Gale) is bored of the sleepy New England county of North Dorma. An outsider to the town, she is full of frustration. But when handsome architect Lucius Harney (Jeffrey Mundell) arrives to sketch the buildings in the area she sees in him a brighter future and a kindred spirit. The character of Charity is beautifully drawn, strong but also vulnerable, frustrated by the expectations placed on her sex by society.
Alesya Bolotina’s set design is simple yet effective, with only two tatty chairs and a bench to evoke the New England setting. It’s the lighting design, by Katherine Lowry, that really lifts the space, teasing out the hidden colours of Bolotina’s set, and conveying a sense that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The small studio space has been reconfigured, and this new set up allows director Timothy Stubbs Hughes to create a real sense of flow and pace, even if those sitting at the far sides of the space can sometimes feel neglected.
Julia Stubbs Hughes’ adaptation is in many ways a straightforward one, and though it’s accompanied by an interesting side project detailing the development of the piece, this doesn’t add much to the production itself. There are times where it feels almost too faithful to the source material. There’s a sense of the narrative being crammed on to the stage and there are times when the production feels like little more than a whistle-stop montage of key moments.
The production benefits from some excellent performances. As Charity, Joanna Gale has an enchanting stage presence. She conveys the often petulant and disdainful nature of the character without ever resorting to arm-flailing melodrama. She’s never less than believable and she has a wonderfully awkward chemistry with Mundell’s dull but ever so sincere Lucius.
There is one moment in the second act where everything comes together to create a blissful few minutes: a misty dream-like sequence in which the combination of Millie Cook’s music and Lowry’s subtle lighting manage to be more evocative than many of the more dialogue-heavy scenes. But in the main this is a rather too solid adaptation that doesn’t quite work as a piece of theatre and is more likely to send people flocking back to the novel.