WITH beautiful swimsuit-clad lovers frolicking in a pile of moss, a banging dance club and hip-hop soundtrack, and a complete absence of bodices, bonnets, and panties, Persuasion’s grinning production puts on stage this week at the Oxford Playhouse may seem like a total reworking of Jane Austin’s Regency classic.

His genius, however, is that he is not.

Austen is perhaps one of our greatest writers, endowed with a wry sense of humor and a strong taste for parody. But its stuffy, stereotypical tales of unrequited love and nuptials obsession could hardly be less relevant today, could they?

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Surely its cast of overly privileged spoiled youngsters, floating in a flurry of flourishes, having nothing to fear but the course of icy courtship displays, has nothing more to say to us now?

This masterful adaptation of the 1818 classic shows that it is bitingly topical.

Replace bedroom quartets for hard-hitting bangers with Frank Ocean, Dua Lipa and a sleazy Cardi B; trade in puff sleeves, tails and lace for clubwear and tracksuits; and sparingly pepper the 19th century dialogue with well-chosen contemporary references; and its mannered musings become an engaging romantic comedy we can’t just relate to, but knowingly laugh with.

The joint adaptation by Jeff James and James Yeatman is a masterpiece of direction. While staying true to Austen’s narrative of missed opportunity, desire, and hope, it places it very much in the “now.”

It would have been too easy to simply transplant the narrative to the present day and tear apart Austen’s elegant phrasing, as has been done ad-nauseum.

Oxford Mail: Persuasion - Sasha-Frost-Fred-Fergus-_-Matilda-Bailes-in-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

Instead, this Oxford Playhouse, Rose Theater and Alexandra Palace co-production is a love letter to Jane, one that deserves to attract punters who otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed of going to see his work.

The magic is due to the uniformly strong distribution. It’s almost unfair not to mention them all (so my apologies!), but there are some that stand out.

Sasha Frost plays brooding Anne, whose battered love life is at the heart of the story. Frost’s beautifully balanced, honestly understated and graceful performance contrasts with the turmoil, superficiality and bombshell that surrounds it.

Will she, or won’t she – we wonder – find herself in the arms of her first love, Captain Wentworth (the suitably dashing dashing, ram-right Fred Fergus spinning on gallant naval charm) that she was ‘persuaded‘ to be dumped eight years ago because he was broke but who is now an officer in charge?

Oxford Mail: Persuasion - Matilda-Bailes-_-Caroline-Moroney-in-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

Propelling it throughout are Matilda Bailes (making her stage debut remarkably well) and Caroline Moroney, for two sparkling double acts: as Anne’s gossipy sister, Elizabeth, and her close companion, Mrs. Clay; and as sisters Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove – a rambunctious pair of socialite party girls.

As they live – as they say – “their best lives”, their own romantic entanglements raise eyebrows, this latest betrothed to her pastor cousin, prompting plenty of banter and a classic “misunderstanding” that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of ‘Eastenders or Made in Chelsea. Good old Austin!

The bubbly, cleverly matched pair inject humor and adrenaline, with Dorian Simpson as their overly shallow and bloke-ish brother Charles on stage.

The witty dialogue is interspersed with stunning backdrops – including a jaw-dropping scene in the sea at Lyme Regis (here depicted as a hedonistic Ibiza-style party paradise, which it might well have been, relatively).

A dance scene is also beautifully staged, a masterpiece of sound, lighting and phased choreography – powerful movement and equally striking lack.

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The harmonious fusion of Regency Bath with the colorful and vibrant bass clubland is due to director Jeff James and the technical prowess of the entire creative team: Alex Lowde (design), Lucy Carter (lighting design), Ben and Max Ringham (music and sound design), Morgann Runacre-Temple (movement) and Layla Madanat (assistant director).

To say much more would spoil the surprises, of which there are many. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on this stage, and I guarantee you’ll love it…whether you’re an Austin aficionado or someone who thinks he hates her.

Let’s just call it the Austin “gateway”.

Come for the classic tale of tangled love, but stay for the tunes, the laughs, the standout performances and the beautiful direction. This is theater at its best – and most accessible.

Don’t miss it.

  • Persuasion runs at the Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street, until Saturday May 14. See oxfordplayhouse.com

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