Emma was written by Jane Austen 1815 and was the last novel to be published in her lifetime. The popular 1995 film Clueless was based on it. This version has been adapted into a play by Michael Bloom.
Considering the original story is over 200 years old, the themes within it remain fresh and relevant. The protagonist Emma is a wealthy 21 year old living alone with an indulgent father. As the play’s programme rightly says she is beautiful, high-spirited, intelligent and slightly spoiled. Having almost accidentally been instrumental in securing her governess’s marriage she considers herself talented in this department and resolves to do the same for any other unattached person of her acquaintance. Unfortunately, she isn’t as good at it as she thinks she is and her meddling doesn’t always go to plan.
Playing Emma here is Kate Spivey who captures well the initial carelessness and frivolity of the character as she merrily plots to bring people together. When Emma’s schemes have unforeseen consequences, Spivey embodies the exasperation and subsequent shame of the character very well. It is important that Emma remains likeable throughout the story and this is always achieved. Her fourth wall asides to the audience were effective.
Emma’s voice of conscience, Mr Knightley, is the only character who can see what she is up to. He is fond of her and tries to steer her away from trouble and is the catalyst for Emma’s epiphany. He needs to come over as very intelligent and pragmatic and Matt Medlock delivers just that. A very strong portrayal of an important central character. The scene where he confronts Emma was compellingly acted.
Directors Heather Farr and Catherine Newsome have done well to ensure the whole cast captured the mannerisms and language idioms beautifully and it is difficult to pick any individual out from this fine ensemble cast, but Philip Ashton as Emma’s pessimistic father and Hope Baxter as Harriet were especially entertaining.
Noteworthy also in this very strong cast was Lara Bundock. Her character, Miss Bates, is permanently nervous and compensates with non-stop chatter. Bundock’s performance was flawless, a beautiful study of nervous energy without ever straying into caricature. She made a basically ridiculous character seem totally real and was very funny. At one point the audience burst into spontaneous applause as one of her scenes ended.
The set was effective – the drama studio is a modern, functional theatre and it was nicely transformed into several drawing rooms and outdoor scenes giving just the right Regency feel. The main scenes were in Emma’s house and this had more detail, but for other locations, just a couple of chairs and lighting were used to suggest a whole room and this was perfectly credible. Add to this the lovely costumes and hairstyles, it really feels like a quality period drama. The only drawback is some of the scene changes were overly long and interrupted the pace of the show. The play did lose pace a little towards the end. Once all the plot reveals had happened, every subsequent scene felt a little unnecessary.
Productions like this one are extremely popular on the TV on Sunday nights – Emma is right up there with the best of them and deserves to play to full houses.
Emma continues at the Drama Studio with performances from Thursday to Saturday at 7.30pm.