Review: ‘Sense and Sensibility’

The Oxford Theatre Guild has a long established reputation for both its professionalism and ambition. Their production of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Jessica Swale and directed by Cate Nunn, did not disappoint. As a long-standing Austen fan, I was initially wary of going to an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. But I would recommend any fan to watch this performance, which was both hugely funny and enjoyable, endearing and heartening. It sported a stellar cast, and stayed true to the themes of the novel.

The performance was not entirely without faults. Some of the scenes, particularly in the latter part of the play as its reached its climax, were somewhat exaggerated, the comedy at points overwhelmed by a pervasive air of sentimentality. However, this was never due to one particular actor, but the dynamics of a scene as a whole. And these moments were few and far between. Many of the scenes were very moving without becoming cloying, as when Marianne finally realizes Elinor’s love for Edward. Conversely, some scenes seemed to drag on a little, as when Marianne was ill. Although this also provided the opportunity for the doctor, played by Tim Eyres, to provoke laughter from the audience, the play did finish half an hour later than it was supposed to, making it quite lengthy at two and a half hours, prompting questions over whether the performance had not gone as smoothly as desired. I wondered if the movement of props on and off stage, which seemed to happen excessively, had not been accounted for. However, the play overall was hugely funny and the actors did justice to Jessica Swale’s wonderful script.

The cast itself was strong and many of the actors notable. For me, Hannah Brooks in the role of Elinor Dashwood, Kate Denton as Marianne and Layla Al-Katib as the formidable Fanny stood out. Clare Denton played Mrs Dashwood perfectly. She showed her tendency towards hysteria whilst also portraying how the strong love Mrs Dashwood has for her daughters manages to keep her grounded. Barbara Denton and Paul Clifford, playing Mrs Jennings and Sir John respectively, made for a fantastic pairing, as did Mr and Mrs Palmer, instantly changing the dynamics of a scene and causing both instantaneous and unanimous laughter from the audience. Barbara Denton was particularly impressive, as was Willoughby in the scene between him and Elinor, as he explains his situation and true feelings for Marianne.

However, the show was almost stolen by Helen Kavanagh as Margaret Dashwood. Swale’s production gives much more prominence to the position of the younger sister than Austen’s novels often do; in Pride and Prejudice for instance, I was left wanting to know more about Mary Bennett. It seems almost impossible that Austen could have created such a boring character, who seems to simply be a plot device, another sister to put pressure on the family’s finances. I think all readers wonder about Mary’s secret inner life as they discover Jane’s or even Kitty’s — but Mary is a query that goes unanswered. Swale’s adaptation is satisfying in its exploration of Margaret’s personality; although she is the younger sister, she is not seen as lesser or inferior, but perhaps the opposite. Margaret is focused on pursuing a career as a naturalist, obsessed with beetles and fish and birds whilst her older sisters in vain try to cope with the demands of love. Kavanagh’s performance was stunning; Margaret never became annoying as I think Austen’s “younger sisters” have a tendency to do in performance, but instead stood out, her acting outstanding.

Jacqui Lewis and Isobel Pellow are also highly deserving of praise for the set and costume design respectively; the set functioned cleverly to both continue the narrative and allow for comedic moments. For example, in one scene having a balcony on the stage allowed for Lucy Steele’s gushing over Fanny Dashwood to contrast with the latter’s acerbic comments to her husband as she stood above. In another, Willoughby’s fiancée could dictate a letter to Marianne in the hope of erasing any scandal, whilst Elinor simultaneously read the letter with outrage, thinking it to be from Willoughby himself, below. The continual contrasts between the spheres of private life were both illuminating and entertaining. So too, as the designer herself commented, ‘the infinite power of the natural world’ could ‘envelope the skeletal and impermanent parts of the civilized set’. Only the frame of windows and a door separated the characters from the multiple storms outside, lightning at one point seen through both the window and from the side of the set so it seemed to be inside as well as out. Particularly remarkable was the transformation of the scene into the Dashwood’s cottage, as the set itself seemed to shrink through the positioning of props and movement of the actors.

Pellow states that with the costume design she purposefully chose unusual colours and styles, for the Dashwood sisters in particular. Marianne’s costumes were particularly well designed — the purply hues came to reflect her increasingly tempestuous nature and the fact that the pivotal moments in her life occurred in storm settings. The costumes also conveyed an idea of the characters themselves — Elinor’s clothes were infinitely practical, while Marianne’s were more regal, epitomized in the dress she wore to the ball in London, influenced by a classical style and contrasted with those worn by others around her. The costumes also allowed us to see the economic status of the Dashwoods. Compared to Fanny’s daily wear, Elinor’s costumes were muted and understated. They seemed to reflect her awareness of both her reduced status and the need to conserve funds. The other members in her family were clearly incapable of comprehending this, Marianne continuing to dress beautifully.

Sense and Sensibility is a seminal work and as a favourite of so many people, it would be easy to fall short of doing Austen’s novel justice. But in this performance there was something for every enthusiast, and the incredible cast and production team made for a hugely successful version of Swale’s adaptation.

Tilly Nevin

For future performances by the Oxford Theatre Guild, please visit their website.

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