Review: Denys Edwards Players sparkle in classy Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park to be staged at Crucible Studio, Sheffield, from July 22-26. Pictured left to right are:  Kate Spivey (playing Maria), Ashleigh Gray (Julia),, Jan Ibberson (Lady Bertram) and Lara Bundock (Fanny).
Mansfield Park to be staged at Crucible Studio, Sheffield, from July 22-26. Pictured left to right are: Kate Spivey (playing Maria), Ashleigh Gray (Julia),, Jan Ibberson (Lady Bertram) and Lara Bundock (Fanny).

Jane Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park, has courted controversy and fierce debate for 200 years.

Some readers don’t like it as much as her infinitely more famous Pride and Prejudice, others have differing opinions on the characters that it portrays.

One thing’s for sure is that the story of tangled upper-crust love affairs makes an excellent stage piece for a company with a large number of actors and the stamina to play out a work which is nearly three hours long.

Denys Edwards Players take up that baton at Sheffield Crucible Studio this week in a presentation which is proving a runaway success story judging by the large number of spectators.

This production is dripping with luxurious elegance as wealthy, fabulously-dressed ladies lounge around in a stately home while servants scurry around attending to their every whim.

The measured control and composure of the upper classes is pointed up in divine dancing scenes.

In a nod to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a play within a play as the aristocracy rehearse a risqué creation about forbidden love until the baronet owner of the hall puts a stop to it. The run-up to this sees young servants building a stage on the stage by erecting pillars, an arch and topping it off with obligatory red velvet curtains, to the soundtrack of sawing and hammering.

Mansfield Park requires its viewer to pay close attention to the characters as it’s a twisty, switchback ride through their lives and loves. You’re kept up to speed by the narrators in the guise of the stately home’s principal servants - the gossipy housekeeper Gipton (an excellent performance by Chesterfield’s Sue McCormick), her sidekick Braithwaite (played with wide-eyed wonder and a warm west country accent by Rachel Strange) and Harkness, proud possessor of some of the best lines in the story and brilliantly characterised by Michael Bullock.

The story revolves around pasty-faced Fanny Price who is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and finds it hard to switch from the poverty of her close-knit family in Portsmouth to her new life among the aloof nobility of Northamptonshire. Lara Bundock is endearing in the role, playing the suitably under-confident and shy young woman who has many obstacles to overcome before she’s accepted into the upper-crust circle and wins the man of her dreams.

Delightful portrayals come from Fanny’s hubby to be Edmund Bertram who is played by Peter Geary, Claudine Bennent as the two-faced Mary Crawford, Kate Spivey as the flirty Maria Bertram, Juliet Ibberson as the condescending young Maria, Kath Kenyon as the officious Mrs Norris and Jan Ibberson as the idle mistress of the house Lady Bertram.

Mansfield Park might be set in a different period to Downton Abbey but anyone who loves the upstairs-downstairs shenanigans of the cult TV series will adore this stage production.

Directed by Valerie Mills, Mansfield Park continues its run at Sheffield Crucible Studio until Saturday, July 26 - beg, borrow or steal a ticket!

GAY BOLTON