I was literary confused at the start of Craig Baxter’s wonderfully buoyant, Trollope-esque, Lady Anna: All At Sea, to hear another author being quoted.
I hadn’t been expecting golden verse from Cumbria’s Wordsworth in a play about Anthony Trollope. But it wasn’t the only time during last night’s opening that the audience at London’s Park Theatre were wrong-footed.
This joyous, playful and spirited production cleverly combines a retelling of Trollope’s lesser known pot-boiler, with a story of how the author completed the piece during a voyage to Australia.
The play had been commissioned by the Trollope Society as part of the Trollope Bicentennial Celebrations and they should be delighted with the end result.
It’s surprisingly funny thanks to an intelligent and witty script.
At one point Caroline Langrishe’s increasingly deranged countess shrieks: “Impudent slut!” at her defiant daughter, causing a sharp intake of breath from the audience, before she explains apologetically to us that it was typical Trollope language.
Set in 1871 Trollope himself is splendidly presented as a modern-day popular author whose output is both prodigious and highly organised.
He churns out nine pages a day before breakfast that are then proof-read by his wife. By his reckoning his trip from London to Australia, to visit his son, should see him easily complete his next two-volume blockbuster.
Lady Anna is a story that is remarkably racy for the time. Bigamy, adultery, attempted murder and forced marriage is just the half of it.
A dead earl has left behind a mess that seemingly includes two wives, a possible illegitimate daughter, and a penniless heir to the title.
The ambitious and social climbing “countess” (Langrishe) – one of the alleged wives – plots and devises to lay claim to her dead husband’s fortune on behalf of her daughter Anna.
Success would mean significant social standing, respect, and money – an absolute fortune.
It would also help if Anna married the new cash-strapped earl. But the lovely lass has promised herself to another and finds herself torn between two lovers.
Metaphorically she’s “all at sea” as those around her fight over her future while Trollope’s fellow passengers make wagers about the outcome of the book.
Director Colin Blumenau has come up with a stylish and slick production which effortlessly weaves the two stories and has time to throw in the odd curve ball when the actors suddenly stop to address the audience.
The seven strong cast play a variety of characters from both the ship and the tale being acted out.
At times the hard-working Tim Frances slips from playing a charismatic, confident and engaging best-selling author, to distinguished lawyer, Sir William Patterson, and a walk-on as businessman Thomas Thwaite.
Will Rastall finds himself as a noble paramour, a ship-board bore and even a ladies maid while Adam Scott-Rowley is another traveller but, more importantly, a very reasonable young earl desperate to marry his lovely cousin.
Antonia Kinlay’s Anna is very modern miss who wants to marry for love and not social position, a stance that incurs the wrath of her melodramatic mother.
She occasionally whips on an apron to play a ladies maid while Langrishe also doubles up as Mrs Trollope.
Edward Halstead’s highly emotional characters swing from an outraged rector to an outraged ship’s passenger with a more subdued solicitor thrown in to temper the performance.
This beautifully played ensemble piece is engaging and immensely enjoyable.
Lady Anna: All At Sea plays at the Park Theatre until September 19.
Lady Anna: All At Sea
Craig Baxter’s clever and buoyant Lady Anna: All At Sea is a multi-layered voyage through both one of Anthony Trollope’s lesser known stories and a lively tale about how the story was written.