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Emma review at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford – ‘a pedestrian staging’

Bethan Nash and George Kemp in Emma at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. Photo: Mark Douet Bethan Nash and George Kemp in Emma at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. Photo: Mark Douet
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Emma is a challenge for the Jane Austen adaptor. Capturing the essence of the novels – witty, humorous, a touch acerbic – is never easy, but as Tim Luscombe (with Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park already under his belt) acknowledges Emma is in a different category.

Recognised as ahead of its time in telling the story in the third person but from the heroine’s point of view so that realisations unfold to the reader only at her pace, it repays several readings. But drama has only one shot.

Luscombe has sensibly opened the plot so that, for instance, the secret understanding between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, which so misleads Emma, is laid bare. New scenes give Georgie Oulton the opportunity to develop Jane’s moral strength, but dilute the manipulative charm of George Kemp’s glamorous Frank.

Austen described Emma, the meddling matchmaker, as a heroine no-one but she would much like. As played by Bethan Nash, she has a conventional charm from the outset: articulate and well-meaning if naive. Polly Misch gives her protege, Harriet Smith, an unforced girlish quality and Philip Edgerley as Mr Knightley is the epitome of fatherly common sense. Nicholas Tizzard doubles as Mr Elton, the social-climbing vicar and – in a risible blond wig – Emma’s valetudinarian father. The comic figures – snobbish Mrs Elton and babbling Miss Bates – suffer most in the process, reduced to blandness.

Libby Watson’s ingenious set – a wooden circle which provides both an interior space and a suggestion of the outdoors, under a matching circle set with candles like an enormous chandelier – suggests a less orthodox approach than director Colin Blumenau has chosen. In the end this is a fairly pedestrian account of a novel that brims with life.

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A Jane Austen adaptation with a degree of charm but lacking humour and bite