Foam machines are not part of a typical visit to the theatre, but the new production of Persuasion at the Rose Theatre is far from a typical play.
This unorthodox twist on the Jane Austen classic, directed by Jeff James and James Yeatman, plunges the 19th-century characters into the present, with their regency-era concerns about marriage and inheritance intermingled with a soundtrack of Dua Lipa, Cardi B, Lizzo and more.
The story centres around Anne Elliott (Sasha Frost) – an unmarried 27-year-old who, despite being young in today’s standards, is verging on spinsterhood. Anne is fed up with the pressure to marry, which is complicated by her family’s financial hardships. The constant nagging of her sister Mary (Helen Cripps), father Sir Walter (Emilio Doorgasingh) and confidante Lady Russell (Grace Cookey-Gam) doesn’t help.
Anne has not always been so dismissive of romance, as eight years prior, unbeknownst to her gossiping family, she fell in love with the then-lowly Captain Wentworth (Fred Fergus). However, she was persuaded not to marry him due to his lack of fortune, and thought him lost forever until he re-emerges at the beginning of the play. The plot unfolds as she tries to suppress her old feelings while navigating the complicated world that is regency society.
This production is a lot funnier than Austen’s novel, playing into the tropes of miserable marriages, bratty teenage girls and sleazy alpha males. Matilda Bailes (playing Louisa and Elizabeth) and Adam Dreary (playing Mr Elliott) stand out for their exuberance, and both excel in their professional stage debuts. The comedic timing is excellent throughout, especially between Mary and her husband Charles (Dorian Simpson), although the humour sometimes dilutes the poignancy of the more serious moments.
In this reimagining, civilised balls are replaced with club nights and waltzes make way for twerking. A lot of the dancing is questionable to say the least (think multiple variations of the robot), and it sometimes distracts from the action, but it adds a lightness to the complexity of the plot and definitely gets a lot of laughs. Keep a particular eye out for WAP – the highlight of the show for much of the audience.
The mix of traditional Austen and the modern elements is a bit clumsy at points. The main sticking point is the Austen-style dialogue alongside the very much modern day displays of affection. Jane Austen would be turning in her grave at the sight of her characters kissing without a wedding ring in sight. Talk of the Napoleonic war doesn’t quite click with the tracksuits and Air Forces, either. Some adjustment of the dialogue would have made the modernised elements less jarring.
The second half flows more smoothly than the first, perhaps because the modernisations have had more time to sink in and the staging gets less clunky. The second half also goes a bit deeper, with refreshing feminist undertones to Anne’s rejection of marital norms. The modernisation works well here, resonating with the pressures to settle down which continue today, especially for women.
Frost shines in the central role, and her performance doesn’t dwindle despite her being on stage for the vast majority of the scenes. Her raw emotions are clear to see, particularly when trying to mask her anguish at the return of Captain Wentworth. Her heartbreak is palpable, and the audience is drawn in to feel it with her.
Classics can sometimes feel tired if played completely straight, and this production certainly avoids that. The twists and turns of the story keep the audience on their toes, highlighting Austen’s storytelling genius, and young audiences will relish the fresh take on one of her best works.
Oh, and the foam machine. Without giving too much away, it’s guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. But maybe bring a raincoat if you’re sitting in the front row.
Persuasion at the Rose Theatre, Kingston is running until 19 March, before moving on to Alexandra Palace and the Oxford Playhouse. Get tickets here.