REVIEW: Jane Austen the Musical at South Shields Customs House
Manners and Misogyny
Jane Austen the Musical
South Shields Customs House
Friday 20th October 2017
200 years after her death, Jane Austen is still a popular author whose work appears in films and on TV. Jane Austen The Musical tries to look at the woman behind the novels. Her family, her suitors and her difficulties getting her work into print against a society in which a woman was regarded as a male possession. After appearing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jane Austen Festival and York New Musical Festival it heads off on a UK tour.
Edith Kirkwood plays the enigmatic and charming Jane Austen. A precocious young lady whose father served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon and was connected locally. This ensured that Jane was able to circulate in the social circles in which meeting people revolved around organised dances and social etiquette had to be observed. This would give her the material for her novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
The strong headed Jane refuses to be defined by the men who want to be in her life. The men include a trainee barrister who departed from the scene when his family became worried about their liaison, a vicar, a landowner straight back from university and a doctor. We see the courtship ritual, similar to that in her novels, being observed which may look out of place in modern society. Thomas Hewitt does a great job of playing each of these suitors in a different way.
The era is also defined by a lack of understanding of medicine and the simple fact that people can drop dead suddenly for ailments that would be dealt with today. Tragedy is regularly around the corner it seems though the play doesn’t dwell on these. It is interesting to note that what we know about Austen comes from a handful of surviving letters that she wrote to her sister Cassandra plus some written accounts made after her death by her family.
Away from the socials and balls it is clear that her parents had a strong influence. Jenni Lea Jones gives her mother the qualities of a strong woman who knew how to operate in society. Her father was supportive of Jane’s writing ambitions and he worked tirelessly until his death to get her work into print. Oliver Brooke completes the cast as the patriarchal figure. There was difficulty as a woman, not just with courtship, but also in acceptance as a literary figure too.
The simple set comprising of a few chairs, a writing desk and a grand piano is almost Shakespearean in its simplicity. The set doesn’t get in the way of the narrative. Playing the piano is Musical Director Arlene McNaught. Her accompaniment to the songs is confident and works well with the story. The show had no amplification; the sound effects were produced by simply walking off stage and singing behind the audience thus putting the audience in the round. The songs effectively helped with the emotions behind the story.
The writer, composer and lyricist behind Jane Austen The Musical is Rob Winlow. He has created a tale that will be magical for Austen’s many fans. Director Timothy Trimingham Lee has used the material to get fine performances from the talented cast. Edith Kirkwood, in particular, elicits empathy from the audience as Austen battles against the system.
This is a fun, yet gentle, musical frolic from a bygone age when manners and misogyny were apparently a feature of both business and the courtship ritual.
Review by Stephen Oliver
The show returns to the region: