Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review: 'Austen: The Musical' at the Mirth, Marvel and Maud, 23rd January 2018

Austen the Musical reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

One of the fundamental values of Regency England, and the foundation of many of Jane Austen's novels, was the importance of a good marriage. Families could find themselves socially and financially uplifted by sensibly matching their children, though, as Austen's heroines tend to discover, love often trumps logic.

The wit and clarity with which she explored these relationships makes her untimely death at 41, unmarried and childless, something of a tragedy - but where there's a tragedy there's drama. Enter Rob Winlow's  Austen the Musical, which guide us through Jane Austen's love life and the social pressures she faced as a female author in decidedly unwoke times.

The show meets Austen (Edith Kirkwood) at roughly the same time as she finishes Pride and Prejudice. Her father (Adam Grayson) is trying to get it published, but everyone dismisses the idea of a female author out of hand. Meanwhile, her mother (Jenni Lea-Jones) is more concerned with social life and finding a match for Jane. This leads to a parade of potential suitors (all played by Thomas Hewitt), each of whom could be a good husband, but circumstances get in the way. Telling a (series of) love stories that we know can only end badly, starring a heroine destined for a tragic end is a tricky proposition, and I'm sad to say the show isn't up to the challenge.

Part of this is down a simple lack of tension and narrative propulsion. Ideally, this story would focus on the sad irony of Austen devoting herself to her romantic writing at the expense of her own love life, sacrificing her happiness on the altar of literary immortality.

This doesn't happen: Austen's writing is mildly criticised by her mother, but otherwise she's encouraged by a supportive family and apparently has more than enough time for balls, parties and flirting with men she likes. What actually gets in the way of happiness is plain old bad luck. Potential partners simply mysteriously depart, never to be seen or mentioned again or just suffer an unexplained off-stage death, followed by Jane acting a little sad for about 30 seconds.

I guess the argument for the story being this way is that, simply, this is how it happened. Historical accuracy would be fair enough, but then the show plays fast and loose with the facts when it suits it. For example, one of the central romances in this show is between Jane and the eccentric Dr Preston - which tragically ends in his sudden death. We're never told how and, after the show, I looked him up to find out. It turns out (at least according to The Jane Austen Society) that he probably didn't even exist, and if he did was certainly never engaged to Jane. I have nothing against bending history in order to tell a better story, but if you're going to do it you may as well go the whole hog.

Compounding the narrative issues are that the show consists of middling songs delivered iffily. An obvious highlight is the Gilbert and George-esque Jane's Next Book, whose clever wordplay bounces along agreeably, the clear lowlight is the Romantic Heart, a real stinker of a song which is unfortunately repeated several times throughout the show. This is reliant on the cast harmonising with one another, which they never quite manage. This feeds into a general musical wobbliness: the piano accompaniment hits too many wrong notes to ignore and the performers are often slightly off-key.

All that results in a show that never comes together in a satisfying way. There are good things in it - Edith Kirkwood's Jane is pretty great - but any qualities are hamstrung by the show's many deficiencies. Much of these stem from the fact that, as promising as it might initially appear, the love life of Jane Austen as historically documented just isn't that interesting.

Austen The Musical is at the Mirth, Marvel and Maud until 24 January. Tickets here.

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