Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Theatre review: Lady Anna All At Sea

Anthony Trollope's Lady Anna proved a controversial novel in its story that argued against keeping the classes apart for no other reason than the accident of birth. It centres around the disputed will of the recently-deceased, apparently deeply unpleasant Earl Lovel, whose title passes to the next male heir, distant nephew Frederick (Adam Scott-Rowley.) But this honour comes without any of the usual financial advantages, because the old Earl had a secret family, and Countess Lovel (Caroline Langrishe) has spent much of her life fighting to have her title acknowledged. However the marriage is judged legal, and when she comes of age her daughter Lady Anna (Antonia Kinlay) stands to inherit all the money and lands. The lawyers can't untangle the contesting claims, but a marriage between Frederick and Lady Anna would unite title and money again to almost everyone's satisfaction.

Not that of Anna herself though. She is in love with Daniel (Will Rastall,) son of the tailor who bankrolled her mother through her legal battles, and she's promised to marry him. Now that her right to the title is recognised by law though, the Countess no longer wants her daughter to have anything to do with a lowly tailor.

Commissioned by the Trollope Society, Craig Baxter's adaptation Lady Anna All At Sea frames the story in that of how it was written: The novelist (Tim Frances) writing nine pages of his new novel every morning before breakfast, while on a lengthy sea journey to Australia. Between his wife's (Langrishe) outrage when their maid (Kinlay) is allowed to read a chapter of the book, and the other passengers taking bets that he can't possibly allow his heroine to marry beneath her, Trollope experiences, before it's even been published, some of the opposition his book's breaking of class boundaries will face.

To be honest Lady Anna All At Sea wasn't a show that initially appealed to me - I only booked because Andy Rush was initially announced in the cast, and as it turns out he's no longer in the show (he's off to Hammersmith to hang out with some lesbians instead,) replaced by Rastall. So I didn't have high expectations, but although not exactly blown away I found more to like than I expected. It is, as you'd expect from a piece commissioned to mark the author's bicentennial, a pretty tame and unadventurous evening, but although the story is slow-going - much of it seems to be a repeated argument over a foregone conclusion - it's wittily enough performed and has a compelling villain in the unhinged, social-climbing Countess.

The All At Sea element of the play - and there's a title that's courting trouble - does eventually reveal its connection to the main story, but Baxter doesn't really convince that it needs to be there; the story of Lady Anna would move more smoothly without the regular foghorn-blasts which announce that we're back on the ship. Libby Watson's set made up of piles of books is a pretty predictable way of signalling that we're in a play that tries to get into a writer's mind, and Colin Blumenau's production follows its lead in having few surprises in store (at one point Rastall plays Lady Anna's maidservant, in an attempt to get a cheap laugh out of a man in a frock; pleasingly, even tonight's indulgent audience didn't take the bait, and the laugh wasn't forthcoming.) Overall, the strong if overstretched story at its heart, and the cast's commitment, mean Lady Anna All At Sea isn't a complete loss, but it has little of real interest to offer either.

Lady Anna All At Sea by Craig Baxter, based on Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope, is booking until the 19th of September at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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