Enchanted April – Churchhill Theatre

Artistic Direction by Simon Boothroyd

Based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim

Rating: 4 out of 5.

An Italian Castle, fit for the finest, is the spectacle of Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel Enchanted April, which finds two English women, Lotty and Rose, take it upon themselves to grasp the opportunity and shatter the social dynamics and embark on an adventure without their husbands (and upon meeting them, one cannot blame them). Enlisting the aid of two travelling companions, the widower Mrs Graves, impudently conceit, belaying a fragility, and the socialite Lady Caroline, whose razor wit and aloof nature conceal an inner turmoil.

But do not be betrayed by Enchanted April’s commonplace visage – this is no ordinary period piece. For one, the opportunity for four female leads, none of whom find themselves on the receiving end of genuine derision or washed-out development, across three generations, is an intense draw for the production, and something Threepenny Theatricals savours, producing a piece they are not only evidently proud of but have taken resolution in crafting something thoroughly contemporary.

The novel’s more gentile comedy of manners retains a presence across several adaptions – occasionally with altered names, but by and large with the same general storytelling mechanics (save one musical). And Matthew Barber’s 2003 stage adaptation leans exceptionally into the escapism aspect of the story, all for the better, enabling Theatrepenny Theatrical’s Simon Boothroyd the opportunity to mould the intelligence of the original piece away from the romanticism and into a broader farcical, though wholly well-paced and empowering production.

There are no weeds in this orchard, with stellar performances across the production. Initially, an ‘odd couple’ of sorts, our duo-protagonists in Lotty and Rose drive such a transformative sense of character that it would be neigh-impossible for audiences not to feel a sense of engagement. The brasher of the two, with an urge to see their plan to fruition, Fiona Main’s Lotty Wilton is spurned to push past the limitations of her practical and materialistic husband Mellersh. Playing with Lotty’s awkwardness and desires of the initial half, the rejuvenation Lotty undergoes comes forward in a terrifically physical performance from Main, who spends much of the show’s second half floating a few inches from the stage, radiating the changes Lotty has gone through, much to the audience’s glee. Rallying, Main’s presence offers a consistent sense of empowerment for the women around her, Lotty doing her most not only to enjoy herself, and discover herself, but aids the other women in seeing themselves afresh too.

And though Elspeth Whyte’s transition of Rose’s devout nature is brought about on a more internal level, there’s a genuine sense of humanity in the actions she makes across the show – speaking volumes with either her eyes or a false bound smile which communicates a tremendous deal more than any words could. It makes for a marvellous duality with Rebekah Lansley’s Lady Caroline Bramble – initially far more open, an outward self-controlled and confident woman, is without question handing out the finest quips and jovial insults to her fellow travellers to cover a tenderness, expertly captured by Lansley.

But it must be said that regardless of the grace, delicacy and thought put into performances this evening – Dorothy Johnstone and Gillian Robertson deserve every ounce, and more, of the audience’s appreciation for Mrs Graves and Costanza, the long-suffering housekeeper and cook of the Italian retreat. Two characters easy prey for stereotype and ridicule for age and nationality, Boothroyd’s ability to draw the script forward enables both performers to move past initial expectations and into absolute gems of comedic timing, Robertson going well and above the ‘foreigner’ attitudes to deliver a knock-out performance.

There’s no surprise in the direction the show works towards in conclusion, typical for comedy of manners, but what elevates it so lies in the hands of competent and engaging performances. Where even the men, who are by and large on the receiving end of the humour of the script, come over with a degree of enjoyment at the hands of their captivating performers; Chris Cotter’s Mellersh Wilton and John Bruce’s Anthony Wilding particular delights both comedically, and for a touch of the more sincere variety.

And though lacking punishment for caddish behaviour, we’re looking at you Frederick (Larry Weil), there’s an understandable aspect given the attitudes of the period, and the revolting return of such attitudes now, Enchanted April only wilts as the pacing of the expectations of end become clear, but staves this off with the full-bloom performances and Main’s touching, final words on the piece.

Nothing is over-bloated, the show is thought-out and tempered within the show – even the set pieces, benefitting from the two-act structure move from London to Italy, Main’s design work is effective in the nuanced digs of the English class system. Momentarily one forgets of Mike Pendlowski’s lighting design, so carefully nuanced in construction, that as the contemplative moments of nostalgia dip in and out, it’s easy to become lost in the performance as the light ebbs and flickers around.

In words Mellersh may desire to hear; ‘Marvellous’. A sublime presentation from grassroots theatre here in Edinburgh, to take an established piece and infuse the blossoms of contemporised thoughts into their direction, performances, and adoration for what they do. Enchanted April is a thoroughly charming piece, pushing its four-women leads to the forefront of community theatre.

‘Marevllous’

Enchanted April runs at the Church Hill Theatre until July 2nd.

Tickets for which are available here.

Photo Credit – Ross Main

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