Imagine the world that Jane Austen creates with her writing. The wit. The romance. The cruelty and complex emotions. The dancing. Then make the dancing very silly indeed. Throw in a few robot moves. Add bubbles. Make those bubbles cascade down from the sky. Chuck in some comedy falls, pounding pop music, cheery singalongs and lots of messy business with some ice-cream sauce. You’re just about there (only add more bubbles).
This is a joyfully silly take on Persuasion – with just enough sense (and sensibility) to hold the whole thing together. Everything about director and adapter Jeff James’s audacious production, first performed at the Royal Exchange in 2017, has been amped up to the max. The explosive soundtrack from Ben and Max Ringham plays at full throttle, the wacky dancing is practically an extra character in its own right and the comic performances are full of exuberant and eccentric flourishes.
Alex Lowde’s set is, quite literally, a jumping off point for the comedy. A rotating platform edged with neon lights doubles up as a dancefloor, a catwalk (complete with a crackers Kim Kardashian cameo), a foamy ocean and, when Anne’s family members get particularly annoying, a handy ledge off which to shove the offending character.
The ensemble cast perform with comic panache, but there are grains of truth beneath all the grandstanding. Matilda Bailes is exceptional in her stage debut and doubles as both Anne’s spoilt sister Elizabeth and love rival Louise Musgrove. Bailes expresses herself as much through barmy dancing as with words, but there’s an increasing desperation to these frantic displays that hint, with both characters, at a deep fear of winding up alone.
Helen Cripps and Dorian Simpson play sniping married couple, Mary and Charles, who raise a lot of laughs – but also serve as a constant reminder of the very real possibility of an unhappy ending. Sasha Frost’s Anne is thoughtful and compassionate but also stroppy, impulsive and proud. She makes a believable match with Fred Fergus’s diva-ish but ultimately decent Wentworth. Amid all the mayhem there’s still room in this memorable production for messy, grownup, hold-your-heart-and-hope-for-it love.