Sense and Sensibility

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

06/07/2024 - 03/08/2024

Production Details

by Jane Austen, adapted by Penny Ashton
Directed by Penny Ashton

A classic tale of sisters, suitors and losing your senses. Six spectacular women breathe life into 24 characters in this colourful romp through the British Regency period. Left destitute on their father’s death, sensible Elinor and madly passionate Marianne are seeking true love and happiness – but just what secrets are the gentlemen hiding behind their flannel waistcoats ?

Based on Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Sense and Sensibility is the latest rambunctious rewrite by Penny Ashton (Olive Copperbottom, Promise and Promiscuity) and is Ashton’s directorial debut. Austen fans and novices alike will delight in the hilarity, throbbing hearts and vivid theatricality of this bold production.

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington Waterfront
6 July – 3 August 2024
6:30pm Tuesday – Thursday,
8pm Friday – Saturday,
4pm Sunday
Tickets $30 – $55

Set & Costume Design – Ian Harman
Light Design – Marcus McShane
Musical Direction – Gareth Farr

Elinor – Adriana Calabrese
Marianne – Lily Tyler Moore

Mrs Dashwood/Mrs Charlotte Palmer/Frip/Mr Robert Ferrars/Messenger/Butler – Heather O’Carroll
Margaret Dashwood/Master Harry Dashwood/Brandon/Miss Lucy Steele/Footman/Mr Palmer – Aimée Sullivan
Henry Dashwood/Fanny Dashwood/Sir John Middleton/Miss Grey/Dr Harris/Thomas – Amy Tarleton
Mr John Dashwood/Mr Edwards Ferrars/Mr John Willoughby/Mrs Jennings – Bronwyn Turei (Ngāti Porou)

Swing Performer – Abby Lyons

Stage Manager – Fay Van Der Meulen
Assistant Stage Manager – Chenae Phillips
Producer – Gavin Rutherford
Technical Operator – Kate Anderson
Publicist – Eleanor Strathern
Directing Consultant – Lyndee-Jane Rutherford

Theatre ,

2 hours, including 15 minute interval

Skilful social satire entertains at multiple levels

Review by John Smythe 07th Jul 2024

Penny Ashton’s passion for playing fast and fruitfully with the works of Jane Austen has entertained Aotearoa NZ for some 15 years, starting with the improvised Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen (2009-10 then 2018-23). Her scripted solo version of Promise and Promiscuity played from 2013 to 2020. She has also excelled in writing and performing solo pastiches of Dickens (Olive Copperbottom, 2017-2023) and Shakespeare (The Tempestuous, 2023-24, scheduled for Circa Two this November).

Having blended Regency style with contemporary wit in her Austenesque inventions, Ashton has embraced the challenge of an actual adaptation of Austen’s first-to-be-published novel, Sense and Sensibility* and given it over to a cast of six women to play its 22 characters. It premiered at The Court Theatre last year, directed and choreographed by Hillary Moulder – and for this new Circa production, Ashton takes on the director role with a wonderfully talented cast of stalwarts and newcomers.  

For today’s reader, Austen’s novel may seem densely written. One needs to read it aloud to appreciate the lyricism with which her social satire is so subtly yet incisively conveyed. (Many, of course, will have seen one of its screen adaptations.) Penny Ashton has lifted the text from the page to the stage with her customary alacrity, and ensures it plays out with a dynamic rhythm and flow that pinpoints its proto-feminist insights with intelligent humour.

The caricatures – much more ‘commedia’ than in the films – are redolent of old Punch cartoons, and even some of our best contemporary ones, in the way they nail the vagaries of humanity and inhumanity. The depth the actors bring to their characters elevates them from stereotypes to archetypes. Within the broad comedy, the impacts of strong emotions are sincerely felt and conveyed.

It is the death of Mr Henry Dashwood that seals the fate of the second Mrs Dashwood and their daughters Elinor (the sensible one), Marianne (the sensitive one) and little Margaret. His son John, by a former marriage, is – of course – the sole inheritor of his large Norland estate in Sussex. While he promises to honour his father’s wish that the women will be provided for, he allows his greedy wife, Fanny, to gently talk him down from decency to venality.

What follows is the story of how the Dashwood mother and daughters survive with admirable fortitude in a largely inhospitable climate, thankfully offset by the kindness of Sir John Middleton, a distant cousin by marriage, who offers them a cottage on his estate in Devonshire. It is a world where women in this stratum of society are entirely dependent on men for financial security either through marriage, the bequest of an annuity, or charity.

As Mrs Dashwood, Heather O’Carroll embodies the loving centre of the play, only wanting what’s best for her daughters, which of course means hoping they will make good marriages. In splendid contrast O’Carroll’s flighty Charlotte Palmer, conceited Robert Ferrars and stooped servant, Frip, are astutely sketched in.

Elinor is well contained (if at times a bit vocally soft) by Adriana Calabrese, commanding our compassion even when we baulk at her dutiful adherence to the rules of propriety. Lily Tyler Moore delights as the more outgoing Marianne and likewise compels our empathy when her naïve trust leads to heartbreak. Their stories form the narrative spine.

Aimée Sullivan reveals her versatility with a mischievous doll-clutching little sister Margaret, her brattish little cousin Harry, a stolid well-meaning Colonel Brandon whose age (35!) makes Marianne count him out as a husband, an even more boring Mr Palmer (Charlotte’s husband) and the intriguingly devious Lucy Steele – about whom no more can be revealed without spoilers.

Having died in the prologue as Henry Dashwood, Amy Tarleton robustly inhabits his selfish snob of a daughter-in-law Fanny, the ebullient if slightly uncouth Sir John Middleton, wealthy heiress Miss Sophia Grey, servant called Thomas, and Dr Harris who attends a very ill Marianne. To echo many I spoke to post-show, it is a joy to see Tarleton on stage again.

The always brilliant Bronwyn Turei deftly delineates would-be matchmaker and compulsive gossip, Mrs Jennings (Sir John’s mother-in-law), and three memorable men: the weedy John Dashwood, husband of Fanny; Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars, who is drawn to Elinor but feels unworthy and covers his social awkwardness with terrible puns; and the dashing ‘knight in shining armour’, John Willoughby, who turns out to be morally bankrupt in more than one way.

Amid this rich array of characters, the sisters’ necessary quest for a suitable husband forms the plays binding theme, which may be variously recognised as reason versus emotion, dispassion v passion, caution v risk, sense v sensibility. Which one ‘wins’? That’s for you to judge according to your own experience-formed values.

Ian Harman’s panelled set, stencilled with flora and fauna motifs, and his props and costume designs (constructed by an impressive team) allow the actors to make quick changes and the action to flit seamlessly from interiors to exteriors in Sussex, Devonshire and London, as well as manifest bumpy carriage rides from one to another. There’s also a severe storm which nearly does for Marianne. Marcus McShane’s unobtrusive lighting design, operated by Kate Anderson, keeps our attention focused.

As for the music, chosen by Ashton, Musical Director Gareth Farr has created and integrated a wondrous blend of Vivaldi, Beethoven and Rossini (‘The William Tell Overture’, for the carriage rides) with contemporary tunes by the likes of Katy Perry, Kate Bush, Miley Cyrus – and Farr himself.

The social injustices inherent in the patriarchy, where women must bear the blame and shame for transgressions while the men move on untarnished, still resonate today. A reference to illegitimate children hints at what can befall women even less fortunate than the Dashwoods. While we may say some things have improved in our little corner of the world, the ever-changing political landscape reminds us there is no room for complacency.

A skilful blend of comedy and social commentary, with a wryly-wrought happy ending, this Austen/Ashton iteration of Sense and Sensibility entertains at multiple levels.


*Sense and Sensibility did not have an easy path to publication. By age 18 Jane Austen had entertained her family with miscellaneous parodies, farces and stories (later collected as her ‘Minor Works’). At 20 she read them a ‘novel in letters’ called Elinor and Marianne – undoubtedly a precursor to Sense and Sensibility. The following year her First Impressions was a first draft of Pride and Prejudice which her father tried unsuccessfully to get published. By 1801 she had written Northanger Abbey, which was bought by a publisher two years later but was only published posthumously, in 1818.
   Meanwhile her father’s retirement saw the family relocating to a series of temporary residences. His death (in 1805) left Jane, her mother and sister Cassandra with little to live on. Four years later a brother, Edward, who had been adopted by a rich and childless relative, offered them a house near their former home – and Jane’s ‘great creative period’ began. She revised what became Sense and Sensibility: A Novel. In Three Volumes. By a Lady and paid to have it published in 1811. Its unexpected success led to the publications of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815) – all published anonymously although another brother, Henry, let it be known that his sister Jane was the author. The Prince Regent (George IV) was a great fan, Sir Walter Scott praised Emma in The Quarterly, recognition and success seemed assured. But illness intervened. A new novel, Sandition, was under way when Jane died aged 41, in 1817.

(Source: Ian Watt, Biographical Note in Harper & Row’s Perennial Classic edition.)


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