Mansfield Park, The Haymarket, Until Saturday

A SPARSE set can often be a good indication of what’s to come from a production, a strong statement of confidence in the actors who are going to bring the material to life.

This is exactly the case for this super, perfectly cast, treatment of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park from Theatre Royal Bury St Edmonds and they deserve to play to packed houses whilst in town.

Ffion Jolly is lead character Fanny Prince, the poor but pure in heart relation packed off to live with her aunt and baronet uncle (Richard Heap) and their three children; wasteful eldest son Tom (Geoff Arnold), vain daughter Maria (Leonie Spilsbury) and serious son Edmund. She is frequently spoken badly to by the family, especially by her other aunt Mrs Norris (Karen Ascoe), but Edmund takes Fanny under his wing, exposing her to books and education, simultaneously failing to recognise that she has grown to love him.

Instead, his head is turned by the shallow sparkle of the moneyed Mary Crawford (Kristin Atherton) who arrives to stay in the vicinity with her devious brother Henry (Samuel Collings). He, in turn, decides to toy with, and seduce, Maria for amusement, much to the consternation of her rich but bumbling fiancé Mr Rushworth (Geoff Arnold again). 

Mansfield Park – written in our very own Chawton – has never been one of Austen’s most popular novels, but in the hands of this talented bunch, it makes for a wonderfully witty evening’s entertainment.    

Tim Luscombe’s skilful adaptation, directed by Colin Blumenau, wrings every ounce of humour from what is often boringly didactic and preachy source material, and the cast have clearly mined the potential of every word and line.

Ffion is just as Fanny should be, prettily pious and picked on, and beautifully passionate in her later rejection of Henry’s advances – saying something, given the appeal of Collings’ raised eyebrow and jaunty charm. Atherton is also terrific as one of the slippery siblings, engaging us just as a she dupes poor old Edmund (the suitably serious Ashmore).

Lots of laughs come from Ascoe’s wonderful busybody, contradicting herself merrily and becoming an audience favourite in the process. 

Many of the cast play small dual roles as the raucous children in Fanny’s Portsmouth home, where Spilsbury is equally good as Susan Price, but no multitasker works harder than Geoff Arnold. In an impressive professional stage debut, he pulls off the not insubstantial feat of making Tom and Mr Rushworth very distinct – so much so that many present didn’t realise that both roles were played by him! – plus adding to his repertoire with a winning performance as Fanny’s seafaring brother, William Price. Bravo!