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Vanity Fair

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
The way cultural cycles go, it takes something like a quarter of a century for once radical ideas to trickle into the mainstream. It certainly looks that way in Tony Cownie’s revival of Declan Donnelan’s 1983 adaptation of Thackerey’s novel, penned for his then fledgling Cheek By Jowl company. There are times in this tale of two young womens’ parallel lives in nineteenth century society when the dust-sheets which unveil the action are the most revealing thing about it.

Because, while there’s nothing inherently wrong in this slickly realised, elegantly fluid depiction of nice girl Amelia and opportunistic, proto-Thatcherite survivor Becky, it all looks like its been brought to life after a long sleep. The representational, parlour-room approach splits the sprawling third-person narrative between seven actors who multi-task like bilio. At the play’s posh-frocked heart,, Sophia Linden’s Becky is a vivacious bad girl to Kim Gerard’s prim Amelia. More fun is had by Steven McNicoll and Amanda Beveridge, who relish their role-call of caricatures. Neil Murray’s design works overtime in its handsomely realised stage portraiture, and a heroic Jon Beales provides a live piano score throughout.

All this adds up to, though, is a peculiarly English take on Poor Theatre, as 1970s agit-prop and Oxbridge acquired Brechtian theory is applied to the set-text literary canon. This puts Cownie’s production on a par with the recent revival of David Edgar’s version of Nicholas Nickleby. Both prove how, divorced from the social and artistic conditions that shaped such stylistic invention, all we’re left with is a conveyor belt of dressing-up box gymnastics rendered as harmless as any other heritage-industry museum piece.

The Herald, March 17th 2008

ends

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