Chris Eldon Lee reviews Jane Austen’s “Emma”, which he saw at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn prior to an extensive tour.
In a very short time, Hotbuckle Theatre Company has triumphantly cornered the market in doing period dramas on a shoestring. They arrive at the loading bay, towing a small horsebox containing just enough stuff to give their imaginations full rein; two chairs, a bench, an easel, a clotheshorse…oh, and four very talented performers.
Their mentor, a Mr. Adrian Preater, will have previously distilled a 19th century novel into a perky script and the company will have engaged in a modicum of woodwork and devised enough music and stagecraft to pleasantly detain a faithful audience.
Their latest creation, a pocket presentation of Jane Austen’s 200-year-old novel “Emma”, is certain to please her fans. Indeed, the audience at Theatre Severn last night seemed to fall into two camps. There were those who knew the book (approximately 249) and those who didn’t (approximately 1). So there was much tittering as the cast brought favourite characters to life and the Austen fan club shared the jokes. I, however, felt a little disadvantaged.
‘Emma’ seems to me to be a story about slight people doing very little other than talk about other slight people. They discuss the weather, affairs, parties and ailments. What makes it attractive is that Miss Austen is so very good at summing up recognisable ‘types’ and dares to extract the urine from them. Hotbuckle’s great strength is that they do likewise; with gentility, grace and pleasant good humour.
Emily Lockwood is still the finest female to step the Severn stage. She is a natural, no nonsense actor; relaxed and commanding. Every line is laced with innuendo. Every darting glance speaks volumes. She simply ‘was’ Emma Woodhouse….the heroine Austen hoped we wouldn’t like. But it’s difficult not to.
The others whirl energetically around her. Clare Harlow is equally ideal; contributing numerous cameos ranging from a fey, schoolgirlish Harriet Smith to an insufferably boorish Mrs Elton. She is transformed merely by a shawl and vocal register.
Peter Randall plays a series of stumbling suitors with such delicate diffidence the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or mother him. And Adrian Praetor, as always, does a fine line in mithering men; from the optimistic Mr Weston to the permanently pessimistic Mr Woodhouse, ever fearful of catching his death. “Dancing…with the windows open?”
The predictable plot is still demanding, and in the second quarter of the evening necessary explanation subdued entertainment. But after the interval it only required the men to don frocks to pick up the pace.
The production is ready-prepared for small-scale touring. The lights merely come on, all the sound effects are performed live on stage and the cast shift the furniture themselves without interrupting their dialogue. There is scope for the show to be leaven with more byplay. There is a marvellous moment when a gentile lady is pursued by a trumpeting wasp. More please!
“Emma” will be available to Shropshire village halls via Arts Alive in the spring…and it will be fascinating to see how it goes with audiences who turn up to support their hall, rather than because they are devotees of Jane Austen.