Writing fiction in Jane Austen’s time was deemed a frivolous thing and, with this considered, the frivolity of a musical is certainly an appropriate way to present her life.
This engaging new work provides a lovely introduction into the life of Austen for people who may want to learn more about her.
Wryly comical and exceptionally researched, the script by Bernie C Byrnes is love letter to Jane Austen, taking us through key moments of the author’s life and contrasting fickle or unrequited loves with the one true love she chose over all others: writing. Co-writer and lyricist Rob Winlow has composed songs that go beyond merely being entertaining, but cleverly progress the plot (something many musicals fail to do). The songs in themselves are glorious and the performances are splendid.
Annie Kirkman is well cast as Austen. She has the right look and more pertinently, delivers witty, barbed lines without ever appearing too abrasive. Her singing voice is exceptional. Paired with her as a co-student researching a report on Austen, Mark Gillon is endearing as he learns of the gender divide and how Austen was told that woman could not be writers. Doubling in several other roles, he presents clear characters and his singing is beautiful.
Patsy Blower’s Mrs Austen is both infuriating and endearing. Blower has great comic timing, including not-at-all-subtle exits in the hopes of blossoming romance and in her we see the prototype for Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennett and Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen.
Tony Osmond is a scene stealer, whether as Austen’s father (a clear prototype for Mr Bennett), a parade of disaffected publishers who refuse to accept a woman’s work or as the rather dashing Dr Preston, a love interest who evokes the inspiration for Northanger Abbey’s Mr Tilney in a delightful conversation with Austen on social protocols and the properties of muslin.
Matthew Gould’s staging is simple and little set is needed to tell this story, although I can see the potential for a larger-scale production in the future.
The framing of two students working together on a school project about Austen’s life is not the type of device I am usually a fan of- but in this instance it works and serves to provide a contemporary reference point, also offering us the possibility of a developing romance.
This engaging new work provides a lovely introduction into the life of Austen for people who may want to learn more about her. For confirmed Austen fans, there are added treats in those familiar lines of dialogue and the character inspirations woven in. A most diverting way to spend an hour.