Jane Austen’s Emma with Heartbreak Productions

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Heartbreak Productions returned to its Newcastle Jesmond Dene summer home this month with a new suite of outdoor performances brought to life by its talented, weather resistant players. This evening however, umbrellas were not required, and the natural amphitheatre formed by the mature trees provided a rich foliage backdrop, which always looks lovely especially as the sky dims and the footlights gradually illuminate the stage. Jane Austen’s Emma is a novel I know well having studied it for A level at school and it is a formidable tome with many characters and endless domestic scenarios (at which Austen excels of course) which I imagine proved something of a challenge to dramatise.

Hesitant Harriet

Naturally there has had to be some serious editing or we could have been there until the middle of next week. This adaptation by Peter Mimmack certainly manages to capture the spirit of Emma with her misplaced snobbery, match making meddling and the endless misunderstandings, created by the complicated web of social manners and mores of the time.
Heartbreak shows usually employ a quirky framing device and this time it was ‘Art.’ The audience were roped in (also usual) to express their own views on Romanticism with a few sketches at the interval and landscape paintings were displayed to help indicate changes of scene. Portraits were also employed when characters were unable to appear in person due to the actor being employed being someone else at the time. This enabled the ball at the end (there’s always a ball at the end) to have twice as many guests, although some were flatter than others..

Some people are so two dimensional

We settled down with our middle class picnic featuring this year, a classic picnic basket complete with checked napkins and cutlery. Strawberries, Hotel Chocolat treats and of course the obligatory bottle of Prosecco were also in evidence As the cork popped into the evening air it was almost, but not quite, caught by a passing Frank Churchill (one of Emma’s love interests.)

Perfect picnic

The drama is about Emma, a well off young lady, who is actually a massive snob in the nicest possible way. Emma decides that as the daughter of gentry, her role in life can best be manifested by deciding who is most suitable for who, in terms of wealth, position and temperament. Women didn’t have much in the way of influence outside of personal matters in those days, and so this is where they could wield what power it was permissible for a female to express. Austen does this better than anyone with her trademark understated wry humour which makes it all so amusing for us dear reader. Amy Gardyne’s Emma is suitably bright, intelligent and smugly misguided at the same time. She is a golden girl, whose biggest reward (the loyal Mr Knightley) is right under her nose and only revealed to her upon her coming to self awareness of her rather arrogant ways. Clark Alexander and Ross Townsend Green play the handsome romantic leads with aplomb – and who doesn’t love a good looking man in breeches?

Our handsome heroes

James Edwards was very funny as the blathering Mr Elton and I loved his cameo as the silent Mrs Bates with his mob cap and his knitting. Victoria Croft is excellent as both the rather ditsy Harriet Smith and then later as the composed and mysterious Jane Fairfax.

Mrs Bates – does she have a motel?

Anna Rowland gets to be very funny indeed as the garrulous but well meaning Miss Bates and then the status conscious Mrs Elton. No matter what the foibles of her characters, there is never any real evil in Austen, things are always satisfactorily concluded in a neat resolution which is rarely in evidence outside of fiction.

Mrs Elton holds forth

Emma is full of lovely lines and homilies we all wish were true. Mr Knightley dismisses Harriet as ‘pleasant and good humoured and that is all!’ In today’s world of reality TV, that is enough to make you a celebrity! ‘Men of sense do not want silly wives!’ Not sure about that one either. However ‘vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief’ has still got to be true – hasn’t it?
As usual, the cast bring a delightful levity and caprice to the whole proceedings.

The Eligible Mr Elton

Our players acknowledge that things in Austen’s world can seem like ‘lots of women sitting on chairs discussing what chairs they are going to sit on next’ but it’s all frothy fun and a perfect antidote to the sober real world.
More quotes I enjoyed were ‘Surprises are foolish things. the pleasure is not enhanced and the inconvenience often considerable!’ This was said about the delivery of an unexpected pianoforte to Jane Fairfax. ‘She plays so delightfully but does not have an instrument of her own!’ A tragedy!
The vagaries and twists and turns of the English class system and the roles of women are themes which run deeply beneath the skill of Austen’s wickedly clever pen and this production by the Heartbreak team captures the spirit of that wit beautifully. Check out where in the country Heartbreak are next and go and see them for some real English  theatrical charm.

Enrapt audience members