Review: Austen the Musical, Bread and Roses

“Must you scribble all the time, Jane?”

Making a visit to London in the midst of a UK-wide tour, Rob Winlow’s Austen the Musical is a rather low-key affair but one which has moments of delicate beauty. It takes a biographical slant on the novelist’s life, focusing on the apparent sparseness of her romantic affairs and how, if at all, this impacted on the richness of her writing, concerned as it was with love and romance and marriage.

It’s a slight concept to rest a show on, given the inherent nature of fiction writing, but one which grows in strength the more it relies on its central performance. Edith Kirkson is full of warm personality and gentle charm as Jane, her heart variously open to the variety of suitors that alight at her door yet never distracting from the free-flowing creative spirit that eventually scored a hard-won publishing deal.

Winlow’s book both invents potential partners and draws them from real life but director Timothy Trimingham Lee’s decision to have the same actor play them all is a neat trick, portraying different facets of contemporaneous masculinity and suggesting the stifling way in which societal rules hemmed it in. With that in mind, Jenni Lea-Jones is good fun indeed as Jane’s Bennet-like mother.

The score has its moments too, especially in some delicately stirring solo songs led by co-composer, musical director and Cassandra Austen Arlene McNaught from the piano. More work needs to be done though on the blending of voices, the ensemble rarely balancing as well as it could, particularly in the overly repeated key refrain which earworms its way right into the mind, whether that’s good or bad is up to you!

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 23rd January then touring

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