Vanity Fair – Churchill Theatre

Cast, Left to Right: Richard Spiers, Lynn Cameron, Martin Dick, Charlie Robertson, Talia Rivers, James Whitehead, Cara King, Alan Patterson, Wendy Mathison.

Written by William Makepeace Thackeray

Adapted by Declan Donnellan

Directed by Hilary Spiers

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Vanity Fair sits among the dusted tomes as a monumentally respected collection of volumes, collated, collected, and often adapted – most famously by Declan Donnellan’s 1983 premiere production in Edinburgh with Nick Ormerod.

Though for many it’s placed there as a ‘good bookshelf’ book, this monolithic 19th-century work spans immense waves of time and location in its depiction of avarice, disingenuous dappers, and the conceptual balance of unjust and deserving punishments. From Brighton to Brussels, to India and the Battle of Waterloo – Vanity Fair treks across the globe with its cast of early 19th century ladies and gentlemen of nobility, some searching for love, others security.

The nine-strong cast of Leitheatre’s latest production staged at the Churchill Theatre until November 19th bites into William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel with gusto – emerging with a medley of explicitly comedic performances, which are offset and grounded by somewhat realistic ones. In what feels like the legally required mandate for serialised works of the 19th century, Vanity Fair’s various publications were a satirical lampooning literary heroism and while Donnellan’s stage adaptation does its most to refrain characters from appearing too antagonistic – it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Especially with upwards of thirty characters in the cast (two of whom remain as their principal leads throughout), there’s hardly a moment to draw breath – and the audience feels similarly. A significant drawback is that exposition is forced to roll off the performer’s tongue. This is undoubtedly a gargantuan piece to bring to the stage. Where the well-acted performances and tight direction secure a successful run throughout the evening, faults will always lie in the foundations of Thackeray’s traversing story. 

It’s a cadent decision Spiers grasps: the bottom line is that a significant portion of Vanity Fair’s characters are, well, detestably unlikeable and the pacing is slow. But rather than settle into a groove, Leitheatre charter a more versatile and nuanced course. Largely down to the performers who ensure audiences are in on the joke and understand that the satirical nature is being heightened and leaned into for comedic effect, to keep the audience from turning.

The full-bodied characterisation is in stark contrast to the strikingly simple yet effective staging consisting of a series of six monochromatic blocks. They provide a non-distracting silhouette, further complimenting Sammi Watson’s background art – a series of locales which offer snappy shortcuts (saving the performers explaining even more). It’s a touch from Spiers to emulate the stripped-back appeal of minimalist design which pushes the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination.

And it’s easily done with the talent onstage offering bridges of imagery and lustre to keep the audience entertained. Doing a sterling job, and a difficult one is Talia Rivers as Becky Sharp – a tenacious and frankly unscrupulous woman doing their best to survive in a world biased to her stance as not only a woman but a poor (by her peer’s standards) one. Rivers holds the role with composure and sharpness which counteracts the writing’s more negative qualities, but they do so without dampening the vicious nature of the role – making Rivers a firm hit with audiences despite performing the more callous of roles.

Conversely, Cara King is tasked with the weepiest of roles, and instead of leaning too heavily into the melodrama grounds the surrounding cast who are afforded a soupçon of more additional comedy in their actions. King works well with the cast, in particular, Allan Patterson’s more stoic William Dobbins, forming a reliance on one another across the production – but Patterson is able to stretch those humorous muscles, diving headfirst into physical character performances alongside Richard Spiers as a veritable cacophony is loveable, and loathing rogues and pompous rapscallions. 

Not leaving the boys to fend alone – James Whitehead and Charlie Robertson breathe a sense of fluidity into the stiff-collared military officers, Robertson having a touch too much fun dipping in and out of playing the more youthful members of the cast with an enviable spirit and energy. But if there’s one trio leaning mighty heavily into the satirical nature with vim, it’s Martin Dick’s Joe Sedley with their stuffed shirt, gluttonous, and cowardly Sedley, Wendy Mathison and Lynn Cameron’s multi-purpose roles as various characters. Mathison relishes the razor-tongue and bitterness of some of her characterisations.  

There’s a remarkable display of unified commonality within the cast – no one attempts to outshine another. Particularly brilliant given the selfish nature of most of the characters they are playing. Not only is Vanity Fair a splendid exercise in direction, reminiscence, and textual understanding – it’s a touching reminder of the kinship of community theatre and its core strengths.  

Exasperatingly vast, there’s a reason Thackeray’s novel oft finds itself the subject of extensive series or heavy adaptation. And even under Donnellan’s adaptation, it takes a talented director to tie it all together coherently. Spiers is such a director. The candour within Leitheatre’s production is of the utmost respect and admiration – achieving significance in this production’s performances and direction, slivering off aspects without distorting the grand origins it comes from. Vanity Fair, for its (often significant) fault within the original text, remains a classic in its lampooning satire and rich character base: rising above these faults with strong character and creative staging, Leitheatre is to be applauded.

Remarkable Display of Community

Vanity Fair runs at the Churchill Theatre until November 19th,

19.30pm. 14.30pm matinee (Saturday 19th)

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photot Credit – Marion Donohoe

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