The esteemed Mr. Jon Paget took some great photos of the cast of ‘Emma’. You can see them…

Rosebowl review

The Bradfordians brought Austen’s witty British world to life for local audiences at The Tithe Barn on Friday night.

It is not an easy task adapting a Jane Austen novel for the stage. It’s not just the constant set changes, or the 19th century dance moves – it’s the love that ‘Austenites’ have for the characters and the dialogue. Austen dialogue is notoriously difficult for actors to master, the cast did an admirable job learning their lines and much thought was involved in the staging, which elevated this production to being a real triumph.

The Company’s production of Emma was a faithful and loyal retelling of the story of Emma – a girl too busy interfering in her friends’ love affairs to realise her own romantic feelings.
While Austen famously said of Emma that she’d written a heroine nobody but her author would like, we found ourselves rooting for the spirited, exasperating but good-hearted know-it-all.
The set in The Tithe Barn was intimate. This space was utilised well in terms of romantic scenes, the interplay of characters that were in a drawing room or a lovely outdoor garden.

There are so many different scenes to contend with in Emma, many of them outdoors, as the young ladies go for walks in the countryside or around the village. To deal with the multiple set changes and outdoor settings, Phil Courage and Jerome Way designed a striking visual concept yet simple set. It depicted the various internal and external scenes, including scenes in and around a country house with an entrance between the two screens into the house, as well as using the entrances and exits of the barn. It served the set changes well and reproduced the country house atmosphere splendidly. This enabled the crew to change set pieces swiftly, condense scenes and information.

The setting, scenery and lighting evoked the mood, atmosphere and era with the regency period town house façade opposite the timber Tudor style dwelling inhabited by Mrs and Miss Bates. This was enhanced by the period appropriate props, especially the feast scenes. The pre-recorded traditional music underscored the period and emotions well, simple bird-song and sound effects were embracing and the mood lighting in the ballroom scene created an enticing atmosphere. There were a few issues with the spotlight and shadows but this was a very minor flaw and didn’t detract from the action. The cross blazing in the distance elevated over the village was a powerful symbol, overlooking the proceedings down below, as the church would have done during the period, at the heart of society.

Director, Cally Smart, brought much creativity and playful direction to this adaption of Emma, and succeeded in keeping the action well-paced and full of frenetic energy. Jane Austen’s romantic-comedy dialogue was faithfully interpreted on to the stage. There is a lot of inner reflection, with some of the action taking place off stage. The romantic intentions of some of the characters are also hidden. The at times complicated text and length were skilfully managed, as was what seemed like a mammoth task of abridging this long novel without missing a beat and making it understandable even to ‘Austen virgins’. This was a satirical, well observed production, which charmingly and ingeniously retained the wit and words of the novel. The bickering repartee was delicious to watch, and one couldn’t wait for Emma and Mr. Knightley to kiss each other!

One of the best scenes was when Mr Knightley admonishes Emma for her humiliation of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, this was splendidly played for its social as well as its character message. Along the way, Cally Smart’s direction enabled us to see the full range of Austen’s social hierarchy. A creative and interesting touch was how the director made the character’s reflections come alive. Several ‘scenes’ which were narrated second hand or were part of Emma’s imagination, were acted out on stage, as Emma recounted them, which was a brilliant touch. This kept the audience involved at all times and the plot became easier to follow. It also added another level of humour as every ounce of comedy was milked out of it. The blocking was excellent, as was the mannered stylised movement which emphasised the period. The wit and prose were delivered with perfect intonation and dry humour, allowing the barbed comments and pointed arrows of understated malice to flourish.

Juliet Greaves’ dance choreography, complemented by Ian Perkins and Robert Highcock’s music, was one of the highlights of the evening. The actors performed some very intricate Regency dancing to exquisite music. The various harmonies during the singing from the cast were glorious.
Gloria Clark made some of the costumes, which were authentic looking, in a beautiful array of rich colours and florals and could be changed quickly, the different fabrics and colours also gave us a visual lesson in social hierarchy. The only flaw in the costumes was that some were rather ill fitting, either too roomy or too tight, I presume these were the hired ones.

The clipped British correctness emphasised a rich vein of comic insight as Astrid Bishop played the mischievous, perky, spoiled, snobby and headstrong young protagonist Emma Woodhouse, who, from her privileged position in a Regency-era English village, over-confidently interferes in the romantic lives of her friends and neighbours. Her wide range of facial expressions embraced both her annoyingly meddlesome behaviour in finding a husband for Harriet Smith and eventually her own realisation that she has fallen for Mr Knightley. It was very funny to watch Emma match-make with all the arrogance, ignorance and hubris of a clueless young teen. It was endearing to hear during the course of her soliloquies that she may not have all the answers after all, and that love has a way of unnerving even the most confident of heroines. As Emma, Astrid had a beautiful, open face, was light on her feet, affectionate and managed to keep her energy going, even though she was in practically every scene!

Gareth Lloyd’s poignant portrayal as the dashing, instructive well-bred, straight talking, morally upright/starchy Mr. Knightly was played with compassion yet still retained his masculinity and endowed his character with an understated authority which was also conveyed in his voice. The audience enjoyed the character’s emotional journey as the only person critical of Emma, eventually becoming the man who ultimately captures her heart.

Astrid Bishop and Gareth Lloyd were endearing as the romantic leads.

In this production, Austen’s vulnerable females were beautifully realised. There was the pitiable and intolerably garrulous genteel spinster Miss Bates, who had limited means but subsisted socially and economically ‘on the kindness of others’. This was played with wonderful characterisation by Mary O’ Malley. This could have had elements of Austen herself.
Beryl Baggs as Mrs Bates reminded one of an English version of Mama Fanny from ‘Allo, Allo’, perpetually wrapped up in her shawl. Although mute, there were some brilliant subtle facial expressions used as she was wheeled on and off in her regency style wooded wheelchair.

Miss Bates’ niece, Jane Fairfax, was played superbly by Maddie White, who on the surface had everything going for her, an elegant beauty, truly distinguished accomplishments, including a beautiful and genteel singing voice, discipline, reserve, sense and compassion, but was experiencing difficulty in her secret relationship with Frank. This deeper layer of characterisation was subtly portrayed until the relationship was revealed.

Ian Smart was hilarious as the eccentric, well-bred and self-centred, mostly harmless but highly entertaining hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. The well timed delivery and intonations accentuated the ‘Eeyore’ expressions and sighs as the charmingly dotty Mr. Woodhouse fretted and worried his way through the various scenes.

Izzy McQueen portrayed the delightfully naïve and slightly gullible Harriet Smith with sympathy and gentle humour. Through her character’s initial awkwardness, one learnt more about class structure than all the statistics social historians could lecture you on.

Tom Schonfeld stood out as the seemingly compassionate, loud and witty Frank Churchill, in fact the perfect gentleman, interested in anyone and everyone he meets. The character development was fascinating to watch, as Frank revealed his character was indeed too good to be true, but eventually proved to be a realist and declared his love for Jane once his Aunt had died. I believe this outcome is still open to interpretation! The character was well researched and proved the Frank didn’t really know who the real Frank was. However Tom’s Frank still managed to remain charming! The cad!!!

Knightley’s brother and wife, John and Isabella Knightley, played by Tim Boughton and Dora Bishop have five children, and represented to Knightley the image of domestic bliss that is lacking in his life. It is to them Knightley flees when disillusioned by Emma’s behaviour at Box Hill. Dora’s Isabella was a shy gentle creature immersed in her children and her domesticity provided a contrast to the independent maidenhood Emma imagined for herself. Tim’s John had clear-minded common sense combined with low tolerance and Emma and her father reactions showed displeasure with this attribute. John’s expressions towards his sister and father-in-law were priceless.

Allan Schonfeld played a warm, sociable, and perpetually optimistic Mr. Weston and Helen Sanders as Mrs. Weston became a mother-figure for Emma and was socially aware of the local news and developments and was able to calm potentially tense situations. Although Emma didn’t listen to her as often as she listened to Mr. Knightley, she did turn to Mrs. Weston for all sorts of advice. Helen’s Mrs. Weston was generous and wise and tended to give Frank and Emma good advice – although she also loved Emma a bit too much to see her clearly. Helen made the perfect mother hen taking all the youngsters under her wing!

With their interpretations of the chirruping Miss Bates and the odious Mrs Elton respectively provided excellent comic relief. The rich, pretentious, newly married and incredibly vulgar Mrs. Elton was played in an exquisitely self-absorbed manner by Felicity Courage in a standout performance. Vanity, superficiality, and vulgar overfamiliarity offset her admirable qualities. If there was an award for best theatrical smirking this would be a winner!

Jon Paget’s smarmy Mr Elton was all smooth talking and oleaginous smiles. By the end of the play, he was subordinate to his much richer and overtly confident wife, Mrs Elton. At first he appeared to be an agreeable man considered a welcome addition to any social gathering, however he soon revealed his indifference to Harriet and his desire to marry Emma, only to take a bride at Bath shortly thereafter, he revealed himself to be conceited and superficial. There was definitely some Commedia dell’Arte characterisation in there.

Ben Posford’s Robert Martin was a good-hearted sort. With the country accent one could tell he wasn’t quite a gentleman (in Emma’s eyes) but as the drama unfolded we saw this lovely man become well-respected. The audience really felt for Robert when he fell head over heels for Harriet and waited until she realised that she actually wanted him. This was a touching performance.

With excellent supporting cast in Meg Nott’s delightful and kind Elizabeth Martin, Simon R Green’s high esteemed Dr Perry (due to Mr. Woodhouse’ reliance on him for his medical advice even though he is not a proper physician). Fiona Young as Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of the local boarding school, Dee Way’s Bessie, Sarah Smart’s Hannah and Grace, Jerome Way’s William, Meg Nott and Simon R Green’s Gypsies, there wasn’t a weak performance in the ensemble.

This adaptation brought to life all of the wonderfully eccentric characters from Jane Austen’s little England. The setting, thoughts, actions, conversations, and overall feeling felt true to the historical period and situation. The audience were treated to psychological insights, social history and perhaps one the wittiest prose ever written in the English language and it was clever, extremely funny and a joy to watch with its particular stress on the novel’s lively tone and comic elements, delivered articulately and audibly by all the spirited cast members.

Cast list

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Thank you to everybody who came and auditioned for this year’s summer production, Jane Austen’s “Emma”. We can confirm the following cast list. Congratulations to all of you!

Character Actor
Emma Woodhouse Astrid Bishop
Mr Knightley Gareth Lloyd
Mr Woodhouse Ian Smart
Harriet Smith Izzy McQueen
Frank Churchill Tom Schonfeld
Jane Fairfax Chloe Tyghe
Miss Bates Mary O’Malley
Mr Weston Allan Schonfeld
Mrs Weston Helen Sanders
Mr Elton Jon Paget
Mrs Elton Felicity Courage
Isabella Knightley Dora Bishop
John Knightley Tim Boughton
Robert Martin Ben Ponsford
Elizabeth Martin, Robert’s sister Meg Nott
Mrs Goddard, Harriet’s headmistress Fiona Young
Mr Perry, the apothecary Dominic O’Connor
Villagers/servants Dee Way, Simon R Green, Sarah Smart, Beryl Baggs, Tina Scudder, Dora Bishop