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Review: Vanity Fair at Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Heather Rosen

In this show of social and financial Chutes and Ladders, we are transported back to the age of Victorian burlesque, when working class audiences came to forget life’s troubles and be thoroughly entertained through song, dance, comedy and good storytelling. And as we know, there is nothing more entertaining, nothing that turns the head quite like a good SCANDAL, especially one that embroils the snooty, entitled upper crust of society.

The show opens with the narrator introducing the cast and preparing us to witness multiple acts of vanity and impropriety. He then turns to protagonists and best friends Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, asking them what they want and what they will do to get it. They confess that their wants are limitless, and they whisper to the narrator all that they will do to win.

The story begins when Becky and Amelia are graduating from boarding school. They are flanked by two men playing silly, uppity female faculty members (reminiscent of Monty Python skits). Amelia returns home to her wealthy London family with Becky in tow. Becky is a penniless orphan who, unlike Amelia, is forced to get a job – she has been hired as the governess to a wealthy British family (that she is no doubt angling to join). 

Becky stays with the Sedleys until her job begins but loses no time in beginning her social climb. She quickly latches onto Amelia’s dim-witted-but-wealthy brother, Jos, who just returned from a jaunt in India financed by daddy. Their father, who works at the stock market, explains how the market sometimes goes down but eventually comes back, foreshadowing the fate of many characters in the show.

Amelia’s family and Becky then sit down at the dinner table and Becky unabashedly flirts with Jos in a wordless, choreographed series of movements involving a lot of napkin dropping. There were a few other points in the show where the characters’ movements are almost a dance. There were also some songs, and I was not sure what the purpose of these was as they were difficult to understand and didn’t seem to add to the plot. Were they just trying to meet the requirements of a Victorian burlesque show?

Now Becky and Amelia’s fortunes and social status (and that of many of those associated with them) begin to rise and fall like the stock market, driven largely by Becky’s cunning and determination. We see that Becky and Amelia are very much the same person, just born in different social classes.

The set, while simple (the best they could afford, the narrator said jokingly) was beautifully painted and included a balcony on either side of the stage, furthering the "highs and lows" theme and giving those in the balcony the ability to literally look down at others. The cast was talented and very versatile with several of the actors playing multiple roles, but Rebekah Brockman, who played Becky, and Dan Hiatt, who played the narrator and also a variety of male and female characters, were the most memorable. 

At the end of Act one, the narrator tells us that nothing can stop Becky and Amelia from getting what they want – not even a war. But Becky and Amelia turn to the audience and ask us not to judge them because they had no choice. And at the end of the show, after we enjoyed the stories of scandal and “nasty women” and laughed at the slap stick bits (including some fart jokes), we are asked look in the mirror – wouldn’t we have done the same? Are we much better than them?

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman

For more information and tickets, please see here

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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