Theatre Review - Persuasion (Rose Theatre/Touring) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I'll start with this disclaimer - this isn't the kind of show you can switch off in the middle of, so be prepared to concentrate! If you're willing to put the effort in, though, you'll be rewarded with a visually stunning spectacle and stellar performances all round. Sasha Frost makes an extremely empathetic Anne and Fred Fergus is delightfully out of his depth in Bath society as Captain Wentworth. Adam Deary makes a magnificent professional stage debut as a range of hilariously different yet believable characters, and Helen Cripps' Mary is an all-too-convincing put upon wife and mother. The characters stay true to the original story, a feat seldom managed in modern adaptations of classics, bringing them to life in a way that drags the harsh realities of life as a woman in Regency England roughly home.
That said, the Brechtian staging of this production never lets you get too immersed in the story (hence the concentration!), with constant cleverly devised interruptions to remind you you’re watching a play. The moment a marriage proposal is “assisted” by backing singers is just one example of how the multi-talented cast is put to excellent use in a less-than-realistic way. The ludicrous hero-worshipping of Lady Dalrymple by the Elliots is mocked in a side-splitting moment that had the audience in stitches (no spoilers!) and the beach party at Lyme is portrayed through an effective yet messy use of foam. And of course, no review would be complete without mention of the incredible dance montage set to the thumping beats of Cardi B!
The loud music that forms a near-constant background to the action, getting louder and more pervasive as the show progresses, does a great job of bringing the story up to date – the moment Wentworth and Anne have to raise their voices to shout over a particularly exuberant tune to exchange pleasantries is something I imagine most adults can identify with! The addition of copious snogging, physicality and twerking could have come across as gratuitous if done badly, but instead they aid in translating the story into a tale more readily understandable by today’s audiences. The discussions of “A woman ask a man to dance? That would almost be like a woman asking a man to marry her!” seem laughable when placed against the backdrop of nightclubs and drag-queens, highlighting the ongoing struggle of women for equality with an effective slap in the face.
The design is simple yet effective, with clever use of lighting on the blank canvas of the stage to suggest location and mood. I particularly enjoyed the subtle shifts in the LED tape around the plinth, and the group’s arrival at Lyme was a thing of beauty. Costume is right on the button, with cast switching between characters with the removal of a coat or a wig, with subtle references to class and role in society that back up the actors’ performances – the naval contingent in an array of raincoats, for example, all adds to the fun of the show.
Persuasion is my favourite Austen novel so I had pretty high standards going into this production, and I’ll admit it took me a while to get into it. However, I’m left with a lot of questions in all the right ways – for example, the intriguing addition of an LGBTQ+ subplot put a whole new different spin on one of the aspects of the story that I'd never previously considered – and I will definitely be recommending it to anyone who asks.
Persuasion is showing at the Rose Theatre until 19th March 2022, then touring during Spring. For full dates and times please visit https://rosetheatre.org/whats-on/persuasion