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Emma review at the Mission Theatre, Bath – ‘splendidly played for its social message’

Hotbuckle Productions' version of Emma, touring until November 29, 2015. Hotbuckle Productions' version of Emma, touring until November 29, 2015.
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The theme book for the 14th annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath is Emma, Austen’s endearing tale of the pitfalls of matchmaking, and this is reflected in Shropshire-based production company Hotbuckle’s choice of this new adaptation by Adrian Preater for its fleeting, one-night visit.

The company, which is on tour to an impressive 30 venues in England and Northern Ireland, works on a quick-change ensemble basis, particularly necessary here with just four actors filling 12 significant roles as well as a handful of walk-on parts. Two of the cast are men, so such key characters as the unfortunately put-upon Miss Bates involve cross-dressing.

Fortunately, Hotbuckle regular Emily Lockwood has the role of Emma Woodhouse all to herself. Her wide range of facial expressions embrace both her annoyingly meddlesome behaviour in finding a husband for Harriet Smith (Clare Harlow) and her own fall under the spell of the upstanding Mr Knightley (Peter Randall).

One of the best scenes in the book, where Mr Knightley admonishes Emma for her humiliation of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, is splendidly played for its social as well as its character message, and for once makes good use of what is otherwise rather superfluous music supplied by all four cast members.

All in all, this is an entertaining version of what many consider Austen’s most delightful book, with director/adaptor Adrian Preater also providing the main helping of comedy as Emma’s hypochondriac of a father.

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Bath’s Jane Austen Festival is the perfect launch pad for a company whose remit is to bring classical theatre to small regional venues