What are the odds of this: the day I saw Jessica Swale’s take on Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson (who played Elinor in the 1995 adaptation she wrote) received a DBE. It would be a total Fanny Dashwood (read: unnecessarily judgemental) move to compare Swale’s adaptation with Thompson’s: the two stand over twenty years apart. Swale’s script certainly stands of its own accord, apart from any predecessors: a Margaret-tinted outlook on the novel that offsets melodrama with broad caricatures and a spirited warmth for the Devonshire the Dashwoods are deposited into.
Part of this rural romanticism must be down to Jon Nicholls’ score. Nicholls lingers on the delicacy of a moment between Elinor (Sarah Kempton) and Edward Ferrars (Toby Vaughn). His is one of those soundtracks which really makes you sit up and notice, in those little subtle ways that prompt you to think you haven’t enjoyed the sound of a play so much in such a long while.
Simon Wainwright’s video design yields more mixed results. Again, it enhances the quieter moments of Swale’s script: his starry skyscapes beautifully come into existence, and show the strength of the set’s transitional quality. What doesn’t work so well is the projection against the back of the stage. Let alone the fact it’s obstructed by the physical barrier of the set pieces, Wainwright loops footage of hands meeting and parting. It’s almost like watching the credits rolling on a lavish sexy BBC drama that’s accidentally been playing behind the show, distracting from the action. If anything it undermines the performances themselves: why do we need to see Marianne’s endless thoughts of Willoughby (Theo Fraser Steele) thrown on the wall when Alice Imelda is doing a stirling job of hurling herself every which way with teen anguish already?
Swale’s script doesn’t ignore the melodrama at play here, nor does she downplay the humour within the source material. The vast majority of our broader laughs come at the expense of poor Mrs Jennings (Christine Entwistle), played with bombastic vivacity and a blissful ignorance to those around her. Forster’s direction tends to paint all the side characters with this same broad brush for laughs: excellent for Vaughn’s Robert Ferrars, damaging to Fanny. Entwistle’s enthusiasm is brilliant but the overall performance feels more panto villain than anything more grounded- especially when a scene opens on Fanny and Lucy Steele. I know a Chekhov’s cream cake when I see one, and this fit of slapstick is funny but feels completely out of place for a character so steeped in outer appearances.
The humour in this piece sits best with Lydea Perkins’ Margaret. The aforementioned younger Dashwood sister is an absolute joy here, prattling about insects and fish with a genuine charm that excuses her constant spying. She’s only twelve, after all: similar to Mary in Sara Pascoe’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation earlier this year, Margaret presents an excellent opportunity for us to revisit the younger siblings of Austen and give them the playfulness that’s been so often overlooked. This modern sensibility, encouraging the younger characters to be seen and heard, is only marred by how it edges into the uncomfortable territory of Marianne’s courtship.
As soon as we notice the ages, it’s not half so romantic to root for the 25- or 35- year olds vying with a 16 year old’s affection. Willoughby and Marianne might have the recklessness of a celebrity pairing (Chris Evans buying Billie Piper a car before she was old enough to drive is an easy parallel with Willoughby purchasing Queen Mab for Marianne, who can’t afford a horse) (Apologies for the super old pop culture reference, I am 25, an old woman), but Col. Brandon’s violent outbursts at random gossipers doesn’t quite do enough to render him a romantic hero. I know, I know, it’s how the book ends, but all the same this final pairing feels rushed, almost stumbled over rather than properly considered in the show. It makes you want to lean up in your seat and wish Marianne a life away from men, becoming a “lady with a crab”. Then again, we can’t all be Margaret.
Sense and Sensibility is on at York Theatre Royal until 10 November. More info here.