REVIEW: Vanity Fair (Middle Temple Hall)

William Makepeace Thackeray embarked on a legal career in the Middle Temple before he became a novelist. To honour this connection, the Inn presents a production of his most important work in aid of the Middle Temple Scholarship Fund. Middle Temple Hall has always had a close relationship with the arts. The first recorded production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed at this very venue.

Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero satirises human nature and social climbing revealing our lives as “a heap of tumbled vanity”. The author treats his characters as puppets, distancing his readers from the story and urging them to think about their own behaviour by commenting on his characters’ weaknesses and follies throughout – an almost Brechtian approach. Lucy Harrison Shaw in association with Rust and Stardust Productions chose Declan Donnellan’s adaptation for their production.

Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp have just completed Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. The good-natured Amelia comes from a wealthy background, Becky is a poor orphan with a burning ambition. When Amelia’s family offers Becky a home, she immediately sets her eyes on Amelia’s rich brother Jos, who has made a fortune in India. Becky’s beautiful voice enchants Jos but to Becky’s disappointment nothing comes of it. Meanwhile Amelia is engaged to be married to the dashing George Osborne. But George’s stern father forbids the marriage when the stock market crash leaves Amelia’s father a poor man: “There will be no beggar marriages in my family!” George and Amelia get married anyway but they are left with little money. Becky has secretly married Captain Rawdon Crawley. His enraged aunt immediately cuts off all the funding. But then Napoleon invades Belgium and the young men go to war.

Staged in Middle Temple Hall, the production benefits greatly from this unique venue. The actors perform on a bare stage using only a few props, most importantly two mobile step-ladders. In the beginning of the show the cast present a prologue to the play, introducing Vanity Fair with a song. The actors all play a variety of characters with the exception of Lucy Harrison Shaw who portrays the protagonist Becky Sharp, possibly the most intriguing character Thackeray has ever written. Ambitious and set on achieving the position in society that she thinks she deserves, Becky fights her way to the top, often failing due to no fault of her own. Emily Plumtree portrays Amelia Sedley whose flaw lies in her naiveté as she keeps on worshipping her late worthless husband whilst ignoring the shy advances of the somewhat ungainly but good-hearted William Dobbin (Tom Davey).

The cast does excellent work, often changing into different characters within seconds, especially Nicholas Boulton, who plays Rawdon Crawley but also impresses as the irresistible Glorviana, a possible prospect for William Dobbin, and Patrick Warner, a convincing and roguish George Osborne and the unique and sophisticated Lady Steyne. Claire Wyatt is a delightful Mrs O’Dowd and Andrew Macbean presents a charmingly clumsy Jos. Tom Recknell’s timeless music provides the suitable atmosphere to the show.

Hal Chambers’ production is almost three hours long, which is understandable considering the scope of the novel, but the pace is too slow in the second half.

Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin

Vanity Fair was playing at the Middle Temple Hall Theatre until 10 January