Lady Anna: All at Sea is a lesser known work by the prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (he wrote 47 novels in total) and was commissioned by the Trollope Society to be adapted into a play as part of the celebrations marking the author’s bicentennial in 2015. First performed at the Park Theatre in Finsbury to mixed reviews and currently on a UK tour, unfortunately it’s a production that would have benefited from being not only lost at sea but altogether sunk, for Craig Baxter’s script has left pitfalls which director Colin Blumenau and his cast have, alas, fallen into headlong.
It’s hard not to make allusions to a shipwreck, for not only is it a painful experience just to reach the interval, but you might very well find yourself sending out an SOS instead of returning to find out what the devil happened to Lady Anna, nor has this play made me want to rush out and purchase a copy of the 1873 novel Trollope reportedly declared his favourite. He famously averaged 2000 words every day before breakfast, and was aboard the steamship SS Great Britain bound for Australia when he composed it, yet one imagines that he might have had mixed feelings about Jonathan Keeble’s portrayal of him in this re-imagined account of his voyage by the Production Exchange.
Baxter’s plot is a parallel affair; on the one hand Trollope at sea writing Lady Anna, closely judged and edited by his wife Rose (Maggie O’Brien), who kicks up a fuss when Isabella (Rhiannon Handy) the maid tries to read about the heroine whom she has perhaps inspired, while the other arm of the play focusses on the fictional tale of the beautiful, young Lady Anna (also played by Rhiannon Handy). Destined to inherit considerable wealth yet encouraged to marry her dandyish relation Frederic Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley) in order to keep both the title and money in the family, he must convince her that it is love rather than fortune that prompts his pursuance of her. It’s not all plain sailing, however, for Anna is in love with, and secretly engaged to, tailor’s son Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson), by far too lowly to be contemplated as a suitor in those days; thus the story evolves into a scandalous tale of disputed inheritance, Victorian hypocrisy, fraud and the darkest corruption.
Catching a performance at the Theatre Royal Bath, Libby Watson’s design is certainly easily transportable, though severely lacking in imagination; piles of over-sized books dotted across the stage are intended to represent a ship’s cabin or rocks, on which the cast tip-toe in the attempt to create the impression of crossing a stream. Failing that, they just sit themselves down on them before embarking on a tedious conversation. The ensemble of seven, who each alternate between two allotted parts (three in the case of Keeble), could certainly have done with either elaborate sets or more frequent costume changes in order to better define the various roles and settings, for their own characterisations were simply not strong enough to avoid confusion or give the concept any merit.
More than anything though, and putting aside the countless stumbles, the dialogue, (of which there is a great deal versus any action), was not nearly natural enough and made the very worst television adaptations of Trollope look highly commendable. If it has the support of the Trollope Society it must at least be faithful to the novel. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain, ‘All at Sea’ is what I was promised, and that is exactly what I got.
Lady Anna: All at Sea is currently on an extensive UK tour until 7th October 2016. Running time approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes including an interval. Production images by Leigh Lothian. For more information and tickets please visit the website.