Matilda Bailes, Fred Fergus & Caroline Moroney in Persuasion _ photo by The Other Richard



A contemporary twist on Jane Austen’s classic


Neon lights, writhing around in foam baths, and a pumping soundtrack – welcome to Jane Austen for the 21st Century, or Jane Austen on acid. Whatever it is, Jeff James and James Yeatman’s reimagining of this classic novel rips the bonnets off Regency England and replaces them with bikinis, twerking, the odd F-bomb and, at one point, a glittering dancing gimp.

The play first ran in 2017 at the Royal Exchange to much acclaim, and is back thanks to a collaboration between Rose Theatre,  Alexandra Palace and Oxford Playhouse.

Costumes are contemporary, the set is nothing more than metallic blue curtains, and the stage an elevated catwalk that rotates and changes colour.

But the story and some of the dialogue sticks to what Austen penned over 200 years ago. Anne Elliot is persuaded at the age of 19 not to marry her true love Captain Frederick Wentworth – her snobbish family do not think much of his prospects. He returns eight years later from the Napoleonic Wars, his fortunes and social standing much improved. They are both still single but a series of events contrive to keep them apart. Anne is considered an old maid at the grand age of 27, and everyone around her is obsessed with either getting married or ensuring their relatives marry well.

The contemporary update is at first rather incongruous and takes some getting used to. The costumes are intentionally pedestrian (the character of Charles is in a shellsuit and his wife Mary is in a drab old cardigan). Charles and Mary bicker (played by Dorian Simpson and Helen Cripps), and Anne (played by Sasha Frost) spends an awful lot of the first 10 minutes pushing characters off stage when they annoy her. It’s funny at first but I was hoping it would soon stop.

Fortunately, it did. The play suddenly springs into gear before taking you on an incredible rollercoaster of a ride through seaside romps in Lyme Regis, a society party in Bath and various country houses.

The soundtrack is spot on, running from Dua Lipa to Frank Ocean, though I’m not sure what Jane Austen (nor some of the more conservative theatre-goers) would make of WAP by Cardi B – Google it if you’re not familiar! But it all works.

Matlida Bailes and Caroline Moroney are brilliant as Louisa and Henrietta with perfect comic timing, at one point speaking in unison, like the creepy twins in The Shining, and their dance moves are both hilarious and actually very good.

Sasha Frost makes an excellent Anne – thoughtful, intelligent and reserved, with Fred Fergus projecting a considered yet charismatic Captain Wentworth. They make a good foil for the more in-your-face characters and the whole cast work brilliantly together.

While there are gimmicks aplenty, it is all cleverly done. This is not a parody of Austen – and all the original themes are there – love, societal pressures, hypocrisy, and following your heart – but a timeless tale brought bang up to date for a modern audience.

Like Austen intended, the story pokes fun at the mores of society while also exploring deeper ideas around what love really means, the role of women and what marriage should be.

It’s intelligent, relevant and bloody good fun.

Persuasion, Rose Theatre, Kingston, until 19 March