Lady Anna: All at Sea is a new play by Craig Baxter and directed by Colin Blumenau at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London. It is based on Trollope’s novel Lady Anna and juxtaposes scenes of Trollope with his wife and fellow travellers on a voyage to Australia aboard the SS Great Britain during which he is writing the novel with the novel’s story of love across class boundaries in the uptight Victorian world where love is often secondary to making a suitable match. In this case, the suitable match is between Lady Anna and the young Earl Lovel.
Their situation is complicated by the legal wrangling between their respective families over whether or not she is the legitimate daughter of the previous Earl (the new Earl’s uncle) – in which case she inherits the Lovel fortune – or not – in which case she is penniless and the new Earl inherits both title and money. The lawyers for his family determine that their case is weak and so their client’s best interests might be served by a marriage to the daughter on the other side – thereby bringing the fortune to the new Earl anyway.
In this context, the younger generation play second fiddle to the older generation. Caroline Langrishe playing the Countess Lovel – Lady Anna’s mother, whose marriage to the previous Earl is in question (was he or was he not already married to an Italian woman at the time of their wedding) – dominates the stage. She is by turns incandescent in fury at her daughter for refusing to renounce an engagement she has entered into with Daniel Thwaite, the son of a tailor (who has spent all of his own money in aiding the Countess and Lady Anna), and movingly touched with gratitude at the old tailor’s generosity for his support and friendship when she has been destitute and shunned by her husband’s peers. Hers is by far the strongest part and she is the inevitable focal point whenever she appears.
Langrishe also plays Mrs Trollope in the scenes on board the SS Great Britain and here too she enjoys a strongly written part – Mrs Trollope is jealous of her position as her husband’s amanuensis and is outraged at her maid Isabella for the affrontery of usurping her in this role for a chapter set by Trollope in Isabella’s native Yorkshire for which he asks Isabella’s advice.
Tim Frances, as Trollope, shines more in these scenes than in the main story. Trollope’s larger than life character gives scope for him to break out more than the role of legal counsel. Indeed, these scenes serve both as commentaries on and relief from the intensity of the main plot.
There is also opportunity for Will Rastall to display both his straight and comic skills in the roles of the earnest and radical young tailor to whom Lady Anna has promised her hand and in a cameo as her maid, hired by the still financially embarrassed Countess Lovel to accompany Lady Anna on a visit to her erstwhile enemies when a rapprochement is thought beneficial by both warring parties.
Baxter has succeeded in presenting Trollope’s ambiguity over the respective merits of the radical and conservative positions and throws an interesting light on the possible motivation for Trollope’s decision over which lover Lady Anna should choose in the end – her childhood sweetheart or the new Earl, who is played with appropriate and winning modesty about his personal merits by newcomer Adam Scott-Rowley.
Director Colin Blumenau makes good use of a cleverly sparse, pastel-coloured set design by Libby Watson which features large books that serve as seats, stepping stones or stairs as the play demands. This minimalist approach focuses attention on the players and they rise to the challenge. In a small, even intimate space, surrounded by the audience on three sides, their conviction carries the audience with the performance to its conclusion.
Trollope, notoriously, was cavalier with the traditional writer’s rules for creating and maintaining suspense and frequently gave away the endings of his novels on the basis that he thought it unfair to worry people that the outcome might not be the one for which they hoped. In this play, where the very fabric of Victorian class society is called into question, Trollope, as presented here through the pen of the playwright, has perhaps wisely eschewed such an approach to screw up the tension to the last scene.
With a running time at a little under two hours, it is an engaging telling of an intriguing storyline. The conflicts are not only across class and generation divides but also within each. There is even room for a commentary on the role of women in a society where they were frequently the pawns of the machinations of those around them whose role, ostensibly, was to protect and look after their interests.
Overall rating: Four Stars
Outstanding performance: Caroline Langrishe as Countess Lovel/Rose Trollope
(Photograph copyright Simon Annand)