Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 21-22
Jane on Stage:
Review of An Accident at Lyme
Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC
There were no retrenchments in An Accident at Lyme. This was not merely an after-dinner entertainment for the delegates at Lake Louise, but a full-scale two-hour musical play mounted by a company of more than thirty; it had, like so much else at this meeting, a scale in keeping with the scenery.
An Accident at Lyme has been for many years a pet project of Paula Schwartz, a long-time member of JASNA, and highly successful novelist herself. Who should be killed off so as to get the cast down to a manageable size? Schwartz was worried about offending the finely-honed sensibilities of Janeites, but she need not have been. Her close acquaintance with Jane’s work and love of this text show in the adaptation. She changed secondary figures such as Mrs. Clay, who becomes not only no better than she should be but far worse than she ever was – a calculating minx and William Walter Elliot’s mistress from way back – but remained faithful where it matters: to the spirit of the novel and to Anne.
There were many subtractions, but also one addition to the cast: Jane herself. It is not uncommon these days to involve author or narrator as a character, but the strategy was especially apt here. In fact, Jane’s story was thrown into relief by Anne’s, and it is Jane’s story we pondered after the show was over. Stephen Heatley, the director, drew attention to this from the beginning: the entire cast came onstage. Sir Walter Elliot, engagingly played by Tony Sharkey, taking centre and gazing lovingly into his looking-glass, while the others took their places around him. Last to enter was Jane, who swept across authoritatively in front of Sir Walter to take her place beside the platform. (This first entrance was a bold stroke in another way too, since by bringing on all the cast at once Heatley cleverly suggested that the peculiarities of the performance space – a somewhat barn-like dining room – were all just part of the production.)
“I have been to the theatre and secured a box for tonight.” P.
From her place at the side, Jane interacted with Anne in a way that made its own comment on the novel. Anne marched across the stage and confronted Jane several times, demanding to flirt, to weep, to scream and shout in order to draw Wentworth’s attention, although when the moment for action came, she was, of course, self-effacing, stoic, reticent. This made for some good comedy, but also achieved something of Jane Austen’s own ironic perspective; there was “No Place for a Heroine,” as the opening chorus insisted.
But definitely a place for an author, as we increasingly realized. The keynote song, “A Little Like Life,” which showed the composer, Neil Moyer, very much at home with a tuneful ballad and a touch of melancholy in the refrain, reminded us of the restraints and restrictions of Austen’s own existence, especially since the song was a duet between Anne and Jane. Did Austen’s success as a novelist entirely compensate for that airless, sheltered life? This was the question all aspects of the production invited us to consider. Even Judith Bowen’s set dwelt on the idea of life at one remove, its backdrop a picture frame within which was the book itself, whose illustrated pages were tuned as we moved through the story. In the final moments, indeed, Jane threw her manuscript after the retreating backs of Anne and Wentworth, and then instantly retrieved it, the action signifying an ambivalence that is also a little like life.
There were plenty of light-hearted moments too, and all performers were notable for their generous ensemble playing. When the four young women, Jane, Anne, Mary and Louisa, celebrated the husband-hunt in “A Whiff of Bachelor,” it was a rousing, rumbustious quartet. Schwartz’s lyrics here, as elsewhere, were full of vim, vigor, and the proper touch of vulgarity, and Moyer had set them into a thumping good song. The most marriageable bachelor was, naturally, Wentworth, who, as played by David Hinton-Brilz, stole all hearts, with a commanding voice and stage presence.
An Accident at Lyme deserved its warm and enthusiastic reception. And an extra hand too, for the whole company, who, in the best tradition of travelling players, put in superhuman effort, trekking down from Edmonton, setting up and striking in double quick time – and without even the benefit of a few yards of green baize for a curtain.