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Jane Austen's Emma - ARENA Theatre Productions

Reviewed by Kate O'Sullivan


Regency period dramas are all the rage right now, so it is little surprise that Jane Austen's Emma is the next story to get a stage version. ARENA Theatre Productions has brought this classic story to Perth audiences at Don Russell Performing Arts Centre in Thornlie. 

Where this show shines is in the comedic moments. The physicality of Jack Riches as Mr Elton is hilarious, both in the pompousness in the first half and the contrast against Kellie White in the second. The interplay between Teneal Thompson and Maria Passalacqua as the Bates' was lovely, eliciting bouts of laughter from the audience. In the comedy beats across the show, you could feel all the other actors also enjoying playing with the banter and the fun. 

Millie Hillman as Harriet Smith was lovely and sweet, and the character's development through the show was done with a lightness and grace that suited both the character and the period. Garrison Cox and James Ford should also be commended for their realistic and yet contrasting portrayals of George Knightley and Frank Churchill respectively. Both play against Kate Naughton Morgan's high-and-mighty Emma well, leaving us liking both at the end of the show for very different reasons.

There are moments where some of the leading actors' brisk pace through lines means that some of the implied meanings and intentions felt lost. Embracing the awkwardness and the floral intonations of regency language would help in some of the more monologue-y sections, to bring us into the world of Highbury and these characters. 

It's always tricky to adapt a novel for stage, especially those with as much detail as Jane Austen. Having a portrayal of Jane herself in the show as a narrator was a good one, with the potential to really drive the plot without us getting stuck on detail. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this script (with the majority of it being pulled directly from the source material) and some of the blocking and direction, it was unclear whether Jane was an unseen narrator commenting on the action, or a participant and puppet master of the piece. This meant the character felt like she was almost stuck in a limbo between the two, and made the narrator's role feel somewhat unnecessary to this version of the story.

The Regency period is quite specific, with ground rules for interactions between members of the opposite sex. Chaperones, formal language and socially required distances were the norm, as we see in modern versions of Austen and other media, such as Bridgerton. This formality is occasionally overlooked in this show, especially in the two-person scenes between Emma and Knightly where they are unchaperoned and sit "scandalously close" to one another. A minor detail, but one that could have been addressed with the addition of a servant or two - my companion of the evening suggested that having a maid or sleeping footman in the corner may have worked, or even to use Jane more consistently as that presence.

The lighting works well, with interesting colours added to some scenes, such as the strawberry picking scene. It would have been nice to see this used even more liberally, to help the audience to differentiate the different lounge room scenes of the Whitehouse, Bates and Weston residences. The small prop detail changes did help, and the set on the whole, whilst very stripped back, was effective. Having Jane Austen's desk up the back at times was slightly distracting, however when she was seated at her desk in the downstage right corner she had a more commanding presence. The costumes are, as indicated in the program, suggestive of the era, rather than detailed. With all characters in the same costume the entire show, it was very clear who was who, but it did make some scenes, like the ballroom, feel a little underdressed or underdetailed.

All in all, 'Jane Austen's Emma' is a fun romp in the Regency period. It is always nice to see new adaptations of old works hit the stage. As with any new script, there are tweaks and things to be worked through, but go along and enjoy the performances and a retelling of a classic.

Garrison Cox (George Knightley), James Ford (Frank Churchill), and Jack Riches (Mr Elton).

Reviewer Note: Kate has previously performed at Don Russell Performing Arts Centre, most recently in 2023. Tickets for this review were provided by the theatre company.


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