By Guy Webster
It’s hard to imagine a venue better suited to a staging of an Austen novel than the Genesian
Theatre. For 65 years the Genesian has been operating and it is this history that emboldens
their most recent venture: an adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. In
adapting the novel for the stage, Tim Luscombe had a difficult task ahead of him – the
careful eye of the Austen fanbase can be particularly unforgiving. Thankfully, Austen’s
writing loses little of its clarity and wit when staged, and director Trudy Ritchie shows a
commitment to letting the original text shine.
The play follows Anne Elliot (played by Rose Treloar), a 27-year-old Englishwoman who
comes across Navy Captain Frederick Wentworth (played by Kendall Drury) eight years after
refusing his marriage proposal. Elliot spends the rest of the play navigating the return of
Wentworth and the romantic inclinations she feels towards him still. Framing this marriage
plot – one of Austen’s best – are a myriad of secondary characters that fill the piece with
humour and sharp social critique.
In a perfect nod to the feminist undercurrents of Austen’s bibliography, the play rests almost
entirely on the capable shoulders of its female cast. As Mary Musgrove, Angela Johnston
holds the audience in the palm of her hand, landing each comedic moment with a deftness
perfectly matched to the nuances of every Austenian witticism. Rose Treloar draws us into
Anne’s measured sensibility and inner turmoil with empathy and subtlety. Her more joyous
moments – a pantomimed rain sequence was a particular highlight – were incredibly
engrossing. There were notable performances from the men in the form of Nick Fitzsimmons
as Charles Musgrove (a perfect match to Johnston’s repartee) and Vitas Varnas, who
introduced flourishes well-suited to the unlikeable William Elliot. But overall, there was a
diversity of accents (or a lack there of), especially among the men, that seemed at odds with
the realism prioritised by set and costume choices.
The set itself, at least the staple fixture at the back of the stage, was a confusing piece that
couldn’t quite be placed in the 19 th century setting. The stage appeared at its best when it
was used sparingly, giving the actors ample room to move and a space to fill. It was a
shame to see the natural features of the Genesian underused as the historical bent of the
venue was a perfect complement to the piece. Relying more on the site might’ve also helped
to avoid the recurring dead space that featured between scene transitions. These transitions
were often filled with overbearing sound bites and the clear sound of rusted wheels being
pushed on stage. I acknowledge the difficulty of staging a period piece for an amateur
production but the issues here rest more in how the set pieces were used - or misused -
rather than there being a need for more extravagant, period-appropriate pieces.
Overall, Persuasion at the Genesian Theatre is at its best when it lets Austen’s writing shine.
Inconsistent accents and burdensome set pieces are easy to forget when the actors –
especially the female cast – are given the space to fill Austen’s words with the humour and
strength they carry with them even now.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.