Musical Austen is a concept that I love, most ardently – so it’s a shame Rob Winlow’s interpretation of our eponymous heroine reduces her to a pitiful singleton with an almost accidental side hustle in literature. Despite the frequent centre-staging of Jane scribbling at her desk, what’s actually placed at the heart of the show is a frustrated search for romantic love, one that Jane may or may not have pursued as she interweaved her life with her fiction.
There are frequent intimations that Austen was never a classic beauty, but her self-possessed intelligence brings all the boys to the rectory nonetheless and we are treated to a musical account of their advances. Each suitor is played by a single actor, Thomas Hewitt, who does his best with some rather samey songs and weak regency-England dance moves.
There are some clever and pleasingly genuine Austen-esque moments: we get a glimpse of Lizzie Bennett in Jane’s initial rebuffing of a caddish, smooth talking type (channelling Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby), and Edith Kirkwood plays her whip-smart but warm. As in Austen’s novels, it’s largely the women that carry the day here. Jenni Lea-Jones imbues Mrs Austen with just the right eccentric busy-body quality that greats like Alison Steadman and Brenda Blethyn have conveyed so well on screen over the years.
The challenges Jane faced as a woman in a man’s world are given lip service throughout, but never fully brought to life in the characterisation. The play blurs Austen’s real life with her books in a way that – rather than demonstrating her astuteness in matters of the heart – reduces her to mooning teenager, then latterly, regretful spinster. Both are ultimately two-dimensional, and the songs aren’t strong enough to compensate. It’s a missed opportunity that the real Austen would’ve woven a masterpiece from.
Reviewed by April Delaney