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Watermill Theatre - Sense and Sensibility

3rd April to 10th May 2014.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

What comes to mind when you think of Jane Austen? Regency costumes, middle class manners, gentility, balls and picnics, maybe Colin Firth emerging from a lake, and some subtle humour. In the Watermill’s Sense and Sensibility, director Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the novel has these (well, not Colin Firth) and has added a lot of laugh-out-loud humour into this fast paced production.

The cast of nine takes on 19 characters with considerable aplomb and, I imagine, some pretty frenzied backstage costume changes. In particular, Paul Bigley manages five well-differentiated characters superbly (and among the credits are a Consultant in period movement and style, an Accent Coach and a Dramaturg).

The story is well known: the Dashwood sisters and their mother are left hard up after the death of their father; the two older sisters, Elinor and Marianne, hope to secure their futures through marriage, their choices being Edward Ferrars (goodie), Willoughby (baddie) and Colonel Brandon (worthy but dull).

Sally Scott is outstanding as Elinor, the sensible and practical oldest sister. She plays the part with great sensitivity, emotion and restraint. In sharp contrast is Cassie Layton, impressive in her first professional stage production as Marianne. A petulant, passionate and impulsive 16-year-old, she wears her heart on her sleeve.

Alice Haig was believable as the youngest sister Margaret and gave a fine comic performance as the odious Lucy Steele. Graham O’Mara hit the spot perfectly as the diffident but lovable hero Edward as well as playing his unpleasant older brother Robert (I’d have liked to have seen more of him!) and the aloof and rude Mr Palmer. William Owen was just right as Willoughby; at first charming and irresistible to Marianne, then revealing his darker side, and you had to feel sorry for Colonel Brandon (Peter Ormond), well-intentioned but not quite getting it right most of the time.

Philip Engelheart’s set was simple and uncluttered, differentiating the scenes by changes to the Georgian windows. The director made good use of overlapping scenes, which helped to keep up a strong pace.

I can’t imagine Jane Austen purists objecting to this delightful adaptation, well performed by a strong cast.


Review from the British Theatre Guide and the Newbury Weekly News.

Sensibilities observed

The Watermill's adaptation of the Jane Austen Classic will delight devotees

Sense and Sendibility, at the Watermill, Bagnor, until May 10

Jessica Swale’s vivacious adaption of Jane Austin’s first novel Sense and Sensibility enchantingly captures the spirit, manners and fun of this classic story. She is also blessed with a stellar cast which she directs with aplomb.

When the Dashwood family are left penniless following the death of their father and the trickery of the son John, they are forced to move to the small sparse Barton cottage in Devonshire near the home of their cousin.

Life will never be the same for the three sisters as they try to re-establish their position in society and hopefully find love and happiness. The role of women at that time was very different to that of today, having to depend on a husband to provide stability and social standing.

Jenny Funnell is splendid as the insecure, downtrodden mother of these three spirited daughters, desperate to keep the family together despite their dire financial situation.

There is some wonderful chemistry between the impressive Sally Scott as the sensible, reserved but emotionally repressed elder sister Elinor and her romantic sibling Marianne. Cassie Layton, in her professional debut, brings a strikingly fresh frisson to this role.

Alice Haig perfectly encapsulates the enthusiasm of the youngest sister Margaret as she makes her scientific discoveries. She also splendidly plays the attractive yet scheming Lucy Steele who has secretly become engaged to Edward Ferrars.

With so many rich and colourful characters in the novel, this necessitates doubling up from many of the talented actors. Paul Bigley plays five roles each one beautifully crafted. His benevolent Sir John Middleton, who looks after the Dashwoods, is a joy to watch.

Jane Booker brings a true bite to the acerbic selfish Fanny Dashwood and, by contrast, the winsome, gossipy matchmaker Mrs Jennings.

The love interest is created by the dashing John Willoughby, delightfully played by William Owen, who has set his heart on wooing Marianne after rescuing her from a fall.

However the older honourable but shy Colonel Brandon, strongly performed by Peter Ormond, is also a suitor for the hand of Marianne.

Graham O’Mara skilfully plays Edward Ferrars who has fallen for Elinor as well as his vain brother Robert and the prospective parliamentary candidate Mr Palmer.

Philip Engleheart’s austere, textured, grey set design with horizontal sliding panels reveals windows of different heights, displaying the wealth of the occupants and is a clever device, particularly when there are so many different settings. The descending chandelier is particularly effective in the ball scene.

For Austin devotees, this will certainly delight and newcomers to her work will be captivated. This is bound to be yet another hit for the Watermill.


There are reviews from The Good Review ("charming... assured adaptation" - four stars), the Basingstoke Gazette ("charming, funny and beautifully crafted") and the Gazette and Herald ("undemanding and utterly charming, this is popular theatre at its Watermill best").