With the riotous season two of Netflix’s Bridgerton currently making waves across streamingland, it seems only appropriate that a pop music-infused and colour-blind adaptation of Jane Austen should hit the London stage. This adaptation of Persuasion, first seen at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2017, reminds us of the heights that can be reached when original – as opposed to reimagined – Austenian source material is used and engaged in on its own gently ironical terms.
Aged 19, heroine Anne Elliot (Sasha Frost), was persuaded to reject a proposal from one Captain Wentworth (Fred Fergus), because his prospects were uncertain. But eight years later, and enriched by the Napoleonic Wars, Wentworth is now returned to Somerset. Alongside suitors Mr Elliot, Captain Benwick (both played by Adam Deary), and a host of supporting characters, we watch as Anne, initially branded an ‘old maid’, gradually emerges from her Cinderella-like slumber to live life as the vibrant youth she undeniably still remains at 27.
Adapting Austen’s novels does come with the same baggage as adapting Shakespeare plays: it is not necessarily frowned upon if lines are changed or plot details manipulated. But this adaptation from Jeff James excels due to its faithfulness to the source material. Heartbreaking lines about love and loss are interlaced with ironical interjections or questionable advice about men and their manners. The production does not make the classic mistake of laughing at the original material, or being too afraid to play it straight without modern embellishment. Instead, its tone is able to subtly be the hinge between ironic and sincere moods, in a way that is vintage Austen.
Quirky modern fashion, and pop music from the likes of Dua Lipa and Frank Ocean, is blended with the 200-year-old dialogue. But the modern and old do not feel uncomfortable together: Indeed, they complement each other in an absurdly comic fashion, with characters, for example, describing ‘harpsichord’ or ‘piano’ playing when it is in fact a Cardi B pop banger blasting across the auditorium. And the line that the architecture of Bath is ‘vulgar’, when coming from characters dressed in a shimmering slip dress who has just done a TikTok dance routine, leads to ripples of laughter across the audience.
But beyond any aesthetic considerations, Persuasion is at its heart a love story, and an excellent central performance from Frost means that this does indeed shine through. While the story opens with the focus on Anne’s more ungovernable sister Elizabeth (Matilda Bailes), a beguiling performance from Frost, all subtle smiles and darting glances, means that audience’s gaze is gradually drawn to her until by the end nobody else is of interest. The final denouement over whether or not romantic dreams will be realised really is edge of the seat stuff, an achievement that any worthy adaptation of Austen should meet.