Jane Austen’s favourite given a night out on the Wandle

DRAMA IN THE PARKS: It’s been a busy week for our veteran arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, as she’s been out and about with the return of local AmDrams’ summer productions, starting with CODA’s Pride and Prejudice

Park life: Megan Claridge, as Elizabeth, watched over by Chris Ranaldi as Mr Darcy in CODA’s Pride and Prejudice at the Wandle Park bandstand. Pics by Paul Grace

Anticipating that getting her critic’s chaise longue from the Wandle Park tram stop to the bandstand was going to be a little too much for one person, especially one wearing her best Swarovski crystal encrusted sling-backs, I called up my old college pal, Pandora Wright-Onn, to do some of the heavy lifting on the way to Pride and Prejudice.

“I’m so excited,” Pandora began, somewhat breathlessly as we lugged the furniture towards the bandstand.

“I can’t wait to see how they’ve approached this project. I mean, really, the timing just couldn’t be better, what with the 50th anniversary, but in the open-air, and at bandstand, too.

“It’s just the right side of camp, with rich post-modern ironic overtones.” It seemed that Pandora had been reading the Ken Tynan collections again.

But what was this about the 50th anniversary? “It’s over 200, darling, the book came out in 1813,” I said, beads of perspiration appearing on my now furrowed brow. Pandora really wasn’t pulling her weight.

“Book?” Pandora said, clearly puzzled. “What book? I’m talking about the march, in 1972.”

I was suddenly struck with the image of hundreds of men and women in Regency costumes striding through Trafalgar Square, holding placards.

Parson knows: Michael Hall (right), as avuncular Mr Bennet, with Dominic O’Shea as the sanctimonious reverend, Mr Collins.

Perhaps sensing my consternation, Pandora sought to clarify. “I mean the title – Pride and Prejudice. So strong, so… alliterative. Summing up beautifully the challenges for the LGBTQ community over the last half-century.”

The penny dropped. “Pandora, darling, you’ve rather got the wrong idea. This is a play. An adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular work, a novel regularly voted among the best books ever written. It’s not what you were thinking.”

Her face dropped. The rest of the journey was conducted in silence, broken only by the odd grunt as I manoeuvred the chaise longue into position, Pandora, crest-fallen, mostly looking on.

Pandora dipped into her rainbow-coloured ethically sourced woven marram grass tote bag, fished out a vegan Mars Bar and fixed her sullen eyes on the bandstand. Any hopes I had that a chilled glass of chablis might be procured were clearly wide of the mark.

Mic drop: the cast did well to overcome some technical issues through the performance

Meanwhile, I got on with the task in hand and, fishing my pen and my neat little notebook from my handbag, got ready to make my observations of this return by CODA, the distinguished Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association, to Wandle Park for the first time since the covid plague three years before.

With the bandstand being on ground level, CODA had elected to fill the space within it with blocks to raise the actors up and improve visibility to the audience who surrounded it in quadrants, seated on repurposed park benches and chairs and leaving four stage entrances and exits.

A number of dining chairs and a table sufficed to dress the stage in its travels from Longbourn to Netherfield, Rosings Park and Pemberley. At the start, the Bennets filed into the performance area in a style akin to a predominantly female Von Trapp family, led by Michael Hall as the oft-beleaguered father.

He started as he went on, an avuncular presence with character and undeniable warmth and affection. Nor was he put off by the first of a number of technical problems that beset the production, when the battery pack that powered his headset microphone slipped from his waistband as he sat down and clattered to the floor of the bandstand.

There are significant challenges to putting a play on outdoors. The “in the round” format, too, presents difficulties that need to be overcome. By equipping all the actors with headset microphones, the audience rarely had difficulty in hearing them. But certainly in the earlier scenes, especially the crowded ball sequence at Netherfield when almost the entire cast seemed to be on stage, from where I was sitting, I couldn’t tell, who was actually speaking.

Usually, it was Megan Claridge, who played Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet.

The second eldest of the Bennet offspring is the main protagonist and chief narrator of this play of manners, and as a consequence has the lion’s share of the lines. Claridge is more than up to the task and gives a solid performance throughout, a bedrock that fortunately provides others with a safety net when things don’t go to plan (and several times they didn’t).

Grandstanding on the bandstand: Pride and Prejudice is a much-admired piece of work

Elizabeth is forthright, determined and independently minded, if prone to making over-swift judgements on people (the original title for the book was First Impressions and it makes a great deal more sense than the title it ended up with, which was chosen for reasons of marketing, given that its predecessor was Sense and Sensibility).

Though Claridge portrays all of this well, it would have been nice if the adaptation had given her scope for a wider emotional range. Regardless, my hat is off to her for soldiering on unflustered, despite her headset microphone cutting out far too often.

Of the other Bennet sisters, it’s Lydia and Kitty, Jenni Stewart and Zoe Shearer, who stand out. There is an entirely in-character but most welcome youthful exuberance to their performances. There’s energy, joy and mischief in what they do, and a wide spectrum of response that made their appearances fun to watch.

The visitors to Meryton are mixed. Peter Brown’s Mr Bingley only really takes off in the second half when he’s allowed to expand on the comedy element. His sister is delightfully nasty, a picture of polite yet vicious social assassination as performed by Hollie Heavens, who successfully transforms into the warm and supportive Mrs Gardiner, the Bennet children’s aunt.

Mr Gardiner’s bluff exterior over a good heart is given a solid portrayal by Dominic O’Shea but he also doubles as the dreadful Mr Collins, the sanctimonious reverend, and that simply doesn’t work. The lines are laboured, drawn out. Dull when we should be hanging on his every word, waiting for the next awful thing he’s going to say.

Collins is something of a monster, who should make your skin crawl. Sorry to say, here he’s just boring.

Charlotte, who ends up marrying him for the sake of security, will undoubtedly predecease him through tedium. Though the part is small, she’s played by Lee-Anne Browne with confidence, and it would have been nice to have seen her cast in something more sizeable.

Oh, and a special mention for Charlie Allen, who as both the harridan Lady de Bourgh and the more likeable but excitable Housekeeper, who invested so much into the parts that what they may have lacked in subtlety and nuance was more than made up for in being larger than life and adding a joie de vivre to proceedings.

Challenging role: Chris Ranaldi does well to meet the expectations surrounding the part of Mr Darcy

Mr Darcy. It’s a big role to take on. Not in terms of its size, but in expectation. Going where Colin Firth and Matthew McFaddyen have gone before. That’s the trouble with going with such a well-known story, its familiarity will bring people in, but it also brings comparison, however unfair. Chris Ranaldi gives a good crack at it for all that.

In the early scenes he is awkward and aloof, and if the underlying vulnerability doesn’t come across, that’s probably more down to the (literal) distance between him and the audience. He’s convincingly hurt and angry later on when unjustly accused and the final reconciliation between him and Elizabeth is genuinely touching.

Using natural daylight at the start, the bandstand/stage is extensively lit for the second half, which gives a different feel to the show. The staging too seems to work better, with the flow from the bandstand to the paths surrounding it seeming more at ease. With the sky now dark, and the light only coming from the regularly passing trams, Elizabeth and Darcy kiss (sorry, spoilers) and the metaphorical curtain came down on a most interesting production to watch.

I slipped my notebook into my bag, and prepared to wheel the chaise longue away on my own. Pandora had gone at the interval, muttering something about “toxic masculinity”.

Looking at the now darkened bandstand, I recalled a line of Mr Bingley’s: “People alter themselves so much, that there is always something new to be observed in them.”

If that doesn’t sum up actors, what does?

  • CODA’s Pride and Prejudice is being performed at the bandstand in Wandle Park tomorrow, Saturday July 30, at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets £14 (£13 concessions). For booking and details, click here. Tickets also available on the door.
  • Tomorrow on Inside Croydon: Twelfth Night, between the 9th and 10th fairways

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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