Theatre Mansfield Park Chichester Festival

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The Independent Culture
Trying to cash in on the Jane Austen boom, the Chichester Festival has invited its former artistic director, Michael Rudman, to re-stage Mansfield Park in an adaptation he first mounted three years ago at the Sheffield Crucible. Given that the novel centres on an injudicious attempt at amateur theatricals in the eponymous great house and that Austen uses the characters' attitudes to role-play as a way of ranking them morally, one would have thought that here was a book that would take unprotestingly to the boards.

On the other hand, the transfer from page to stage does not increase one's already scant affection for the heroine. Fanny Price is a far cry from Fanny Brice. Starring in the Ziegfeld Follies would come about as naturally to her as dominating the pub darts circuit would to Kafka. Shrinking from the very idea of thespianism, mouthy, passive, endlessly agonising Fanny can't help but seem a bit of a prig in the book. In a theatrical version, her killjoy quality seems even less worthy of being held up for our admiration and nothing in Lucy Scott's pallid performance can persuade one otherwise.

Willis Hall's adaptation makes much use of formal dances to push the piece forward and to stylise the shifting relationships. The sanction such dances gave for partner-swapping and hence for fleeting flirtation strikes the modern eye as much more subtly dangerous than the broad signalling licensed by the amateur dramatics.

Hall gets round the problem of narration by letting the servants tell the story. When Neil Bartlett adapted Maugham's The Letter recently he cast Asian actors as jokily baleful scene-shifters, a ruse which sent out a political message in that it established a silent complicity between the natives and the audience over the heads of the British colonials whose illusory control of the situation was made wittily manifest. Nothing comparably edged happens in this Mansfield Park. Jauntily jaundiced, the bewigged footmen and maids periodically remind you that it is their drudgery that keeps the house going. Somehow, though, you don't feel the Revolution will start here.

Some of the acting is seriously inadequate. Lady Bertram is meant to be monumentally indolent, true, but compared to Liza Goddard's performance, a Dalek on Mogadon would seem snappy. As Henry and Mary Crawford, Peter Hamilton Dwyer and Poppy Miller lack sprightliness and glamour. This pair are supposed to exemplify the seductiveness of charm and the destructiveness of the unprincipled. As acted here, the Crawford siblings would not come high on a fun guest list. A pity, since a play about the dangers of theatricality needs to make theatricality seem captivating first.