‘Emma’ is charming.
In their swish new theatre at Seven Hills, Villanova players kick off their 2019 season with a trip back to Georgian England to visit Jane Austen’s, Emma Woodhouse. The classic play rightly entitled ‘Emma’ is a faithful, and fun adaptation of Austen’s novel, written by Sandra Fenichel Asher.
For those uninitiated, ‘Emma’ is a wonderful period piece full of youth and hubris. The storyline highlights the pitfalls of miscommunication and is about falling in love and not falling in love. It discovers what happens when you don’t listen to your heart or if you listen too closely – depending on each character’s point of view.
Direction by Mary Woodall, a veteran of Brisbane stages, mostly ensures the play moves quickly, and rarely leaves the audience sitting waiting. Woodall clearly has a good eye for the period and gives nod to many elements and mannerisms that are era-appropriate. Vocal projection is a small issue, especially at the start of the play, but as the actors settle, this becomes less of a problem. A particular delight is a featured dance that pays special attention to detail in how characters interact with each other.
The set is simple and elegant and serves as each of the homes throughout the production – only a painting changes on the mantle to let the audience know where they are. This device is clever, although at times a fraction slow and distracting. The action can be quickened by having a cast member add the new picture into the scene or a second stagehand assist. A really impressive aspect of the set is the carriage, that unfortunately only appears once during the show. Regardless, it is spectacular and works a treat.
As Jane Austen, Cecilia Girard is quietly confined to a writing desk in the corner for the entirety of the show. Some clever direction does see her hand out a few props to the actors (a tankard being the most notably funny) and this goes some way to integrate her into the action. However, Girard is stranded in the scenes at times, rather than feeling a part of the world – a shame, as her performance has a deft touch (in spite of some opening night nerves), and she serves as a warm narrator who anchors the story throughout.
As the title character of Emma Woodhouse, Hannah Martin gives a performance that is down to earth and clearly revels in her part. Martin’s work with her fellow cast mates is appropriately succinct and pushy, moving the action around the space and using the characters like chess pieces for her Machiavellian scheming. Of particular charm and note is Emma’s sparring against Robert Gettons as Mr Knightley, and his gentle ease when he manages to slide underneath her carefully placed armour. Martin’s portrayal of shock when Emma finally realises his feelings is heartfelt.
As the aforementioned love interest Mr Knightley, Gettons is a delight. He is alternately honest, distant, and masks his true feelings behind perfect English manners. He serves to guide Emma and gives her some gentle “friendly” advice, which sets her on the right path as often as it catapults her in the completely wrong direction. Gettons gives a very solid, and quite likeable portrayal of a man conflicted by his feelings and sense of duty, locked into a game of manners that does not necessarily help anyone’s best interests.
As the victim of most of Emma’s interfering, Harriet Smith comes to life in Lillian Dowdell. Her performance is endearingly sweet and makes the most of her deeply naive character every time she is onstage. The living embodiment of the play’s theme, Dowdell is the essence of “don’t meddle and let things sort themselves out.” Her work with Daniel Buckley as Robert Martin is wonderfully coy and just a little breathless – the perfect combination for a lovestruck, but confused woman.
A surprising scene stealer is Elizabeth Morris in the role of Miss Bates, who boasts incredible projection, and an energy that picks the rest of the cast up to gregariously dominate the space. As one of the more comedic roles on the stage, Morris is a joy and constantly brings much-needed light and shade to the production. Of particular note is her effrontery during the “conversation” after strawberry picking.
A special nod must also go to Rod Thompson and Desley Nichols, who play Henry Woodhouse and Mrs Bates respectively. The two share a gorgeous camaraderie onstage, inhabiting their comfy armchairs at the back of the space to wake with a start and an occasional interjection. Their work rounds out the world imagined by Austen in her stories and is a credit to both players.
For a thoroughly quaint night at the theatre, a trip to the village of Highbury might be just the ticket. Villanova brings ‘Emma’ to life with charming and delightful energy. Be careful though, ‘Emma’ has a way with match-making and may see fit to set you up with the person sitting next to you.
‘Emma’ runs until Saturday, 9 March 2019. Book your seat at http://www.villanovaplayers.com.