Emma at Woburn Abbey (review)

Emma by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company
Emma by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company

The weather plays a major part in the success of open air theatre. There’s nothing worse than sitting in driving rain and gale force winds watching a company battle through The Tempest (although it does add to the atmosphere!)

Woburn Abbey’s Sculpture Gardens never looked better on Saturday night when the ever reliable Chapterhouse Theatre Company brought us Jane Austin’s Emma. The rainclouds scuttled away, the sun came out, and so did the public who gorged themselves on picnic favourites before sitting back to enjoy the play.

Emma by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company

Emma by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company

The cast took a few minutes to get the sound levels right and then threw themselves into the delightful regency story about an independent young girl who is so busy matchmaking her friends that she doesn’t recognise love on her own doorstep.

It’s hard work performing in the open. There is the noise from overhead planes to contend with, fighting pigeons in the nearby trees, flights of geese taking off plus the odd mobile phone that hasn’t been switched to mute.

But both audience and cast seemed to enjoy the challenge of coming up with an entertaining and engrossing night’s entertainment.

The star of the show as far as I was concerned was the brooding “boy next door” George Knightley. Adam Grayson had the brooding good looks of a young Colin Firth (though no opportunity to see how he’d cope with a wet dress shirt) and seemed very much at home in period costume.

He projected his voice well so that even those in the back row could sympathise with his rather ham-fisted attempts at wooing. The RADA-trained Grayson was very much a leading man and a name to look out for in the future.

As Knightley he kept a watching brief on his friend, an impetuous young Emma Woodhouse, as she interfered in everyone else’s lives before he quietly declared his love for the minx. It produced one of those slushy endings that had the ladies aahing and the men embarrassed by their behaviour.

Emma is a rom-com from the 19th century and there are some great characters in it. The best by far was Liam Webster’s social climbing vicar, Mr Elton, whose affected manners (for, indeed, this is a comedy of manners) made for some entertaining moments (particularly his playful handling of sponge fingers!)

Webster also played Mr Martin, a jovial young farmer who battles through Emma’s interference to woo one of her friends, Harriet Smith. At one point he gives up and starts escorting another young girl, one Anne Cox, described by Emma as “the most vulgar girl in the village” (a bit harsh for my namesake I thought.)

All of the eight-strong cast, with the exception of Grayson and Clara Edmonds, who plays the title role, take two or more parts with the hard-working Vicky Album appearing as four minor characters.

Clara’s Emma got under the skin of this independently-minded young girl who is much too modern for her time period. Written in 1815 when women were constrained by stifling social conventions, Austin (and Laura Turner who wrote the adaptation) have come up with a witty story that smoothly blends moments of comedy and drama.

Another success for Chapterhouse who return to Woburn this Saturday with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gates open at 5pm with the performance starting at 7pm. Tickets available on the gate. For more information go to the Woburn Abbey website.

(the not so vulgar) ANNE COX