The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh
I’ll be honest; this one started at a disadvantage: I don’t really like musicals very much. It’s not a blanket prejudice (I think Matilda is delightful, Little Shop a lot of fun and Cabaret bloody brilliant) but it’s not my favourite theatrical genre. I’m also aware that a small Fringe production can’t be expected to have the same impact as those big-budget West End shows I’ve mentioned above, and yet… It could so easily have been much more than it was.
We saw a musical two-hander last year (I Need a Doctor), which was lively and charming and used its size to its advantage. Austen, with four actors, always felt too small.
The conceit has potential: two students researching Austen discover that the spinster author had a love life of her own. The action cuts between the students in the present day, and moments depicting Jane’s relationships in the past. Sadly, it doesn’t really work. The songs all sound the same as one another, with no shift in tone for the modern day. A single piano is used for each of the bland ballads, and the lyrics are oddly anachronistic (most of the dialogue is faux-Austen in style, but there’s a song which repeats the very modern refrain ‘You’re so special’ so often that it’s utterly nauseating, and makes you long for Radiohead to complete the idea).
And the story itself is weak. It might surprise the two students to discover that Jane Austen had relationships, but it surely doesn’t surprise anyone who’s read her books or even looked her up on Wikipedia. She did live in the real world and enjoy some social interaction. And, in truth, her putative affairs weren’t really very interesting: a flirtation, a friendship and a rejected proposal. So what? Why do they care? What do they think it says to them?
There are spurious links made between the people Austen encountered and the characters in her books. We are not allowed to make these connections for ourselves, but have them pointed out to us in some clunky exposition: “Oh, he must be the inspiration for Wickham!” Mrs Austen is conflated with Mrs Bennett; it’s all just too pat and convenient.
It wasn’t all terrible; the actors did their best with the turgid script, and they could all sing rather well. The scene with the royal librarian was funny and engaging. But, all in all, this is one to miss.