Review: Emilia, Vaudeville Theatre

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia transfers to the Vaudeville Theatre with all of its feminist fire and fun intact

“There’s a woman on the stage”

Is there anything currently on the London stage that is more gracefully eloquent than the moment that the transformative power of grief is writ large at a crucial point a third of the way into Emilia. It’s a rare moment of beautiful subtlety in a play that is more often considerably bolder in its sentiment but it’s also a mark of just how nuanced Nicole Charles’ production and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s writing is, even while some tie themselves in knots trying to square its historical and feminist credentials.  

A transfer from Shakespeare’s Globe last summer (officially the 13th best show of the year doncha know) where its short run caught fire, its all-female and wonderfully diverse cast and creative team mean that all three of the Strand’s major playhouses currently have work written by women in them (I wonder when this last happened). And while that ought not to be noteworthy, god knows it still is and it all ties up rather neatly with Lloyd Malcolm’s writing. For though this is a play about a historical woman, it is also a play about all women.My review from last year can be found here and much of it remains pertinent. The play has been trimmed down a touch, restaged for a proscenium arch and partly recast. So the lead role of Emilia is now shared by Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and the returning Clare Perkins and it is an achingly moving theatrical device that is just so affecting. Coomber’s youthful ebullience darkens into Leonce’s circumspect melancholy which feeds into the explosive fury of Perkins’ rallying cries. And as all three are often onstage together, the synergy between them is gorgeous to watch as the other ‘selves’ relive their experiences (seriously, I’d pay to watch the first act again just to Leonce’s nuanced reactive acting – simply superb).

And little of the show’s energy has been lost in the move across the river. Anna Morrissey’s choreography matches Lloyd Malcolm’s gleefully anachronistic cherry-picking of contemporary references, the live music (Luisa Gerstein) feels more urgent than ever, and Joanna Scotcher’s set design brings in Zoe Spurr’s lighting to palpable effect, asking questions of how and why and what is theatre. I particularly loved the way in which the play bleeds out into the auditorium, the company relishing the chance to drag up as the male characters and act like the dicks they are. 

For this is a very funny play at several junctures and smartly so, making clear the lines from Emilia’s sixteenth century experiences through to a contemporary situation which hasn’t improved enough. It also points to the power of direct action, whether the speculative stories of Emilia’s co-operative building to the producers here arranging a mother and baby friendly matinee in response to need. Will The Lehman Trilogy be following suit… A welcome breath of fresh air for the West End.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Helen Murray
Emilia is booking at the Vaudeville Theatre until 15th June

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