Although there are negatives in this production of Austen the Musical, the strong cast and narrative content lift the performance. There is much humour to balance the serious issues of misogyny and gender exclusion within the story. The seventeen characters in the story are covered by four very versatile actors.
‘Must you scribble all the time Jane?’
Such are the opening words of this new musical about the life and loves of Jane Austen. Austen the Musical has book, music and lyrics by Rob Winlow. It was seen at the Bread and Roses Theatre as part of its current UK tour. Austen the Musical has been developed over several years with performances including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014.
This production was directed by Timothy Trimingham Lee who has given shape to a narrative that is complex and meandering. Perhaps in a larger performance space the drama wouldn’t feel compressed. On several occasions the cast wanders around the audience, breaking the fourth wall and dividing the audience’s focus between the important content onstage (the dialogue) and the peripheral action in the background.
The book and the acting skills of the cast are very good. There is much humour to balance the serious issues of misogyny and gender exclusion within the story. There are seventeen characters in the story covered by four actors although Edith Kirkwood plays the title role only. Thomas Hewitt is a most versatile performer who plays the suitors of Jane as well as some unco-operative publishers.
Each relationship of Jane and her suitors is unique and well defined, showcasing the outstanding work of Kirkwood and Hewitt but also director Trimingham Lee. Both of these actors sing with conviction and musicality.
Jane’s parents are played by Jenni Lea-Jones and Adam Grayson who also have other minor roles. Lea-Jones presents a typical mother of the period, pushing Jane towards marriage and away from writing. It is in the minor roles of the publishers that this actor’s skills of characterisation shine brightest showing a good feel for comedy.
Grayson is charming as Jane’s father and the relationship between father and daughter is palpable making the scenes about his death believable and moving. Grayson’s best asset is his acting skill.
The music in Austen the Musical has been arranged by Ed Winlow and whilst there is merit in the melodies and the way the lyrics are set to the music, the effect is diminished by repetition and overload. The songs are unlisted in the program but there are too many musical numbers to balance with the dramatic elements. Further there is a sameness in the structure of the songs which leads to them blending into one. Most irritating was the reprise of the sung recitative with its layered ensemble singing and the repeated phrase, ‘romantic heart’.
It is also in that repeated phrase that this talented cast struggle to retain pitch and the four part harmony was frequently compromised. All of the cast are strong in their solo-singing but the highly melismatic settings of the ensemble choruses don’t work.
Although there are negatives in this production of Austen the Musical, The strong cast and narrative content lift the performance.