Anyone taking a casual stroll through the Botanical Gardens on a blazing hot Saturday afternoon towards the end of August will have been met by an unusual sight. There, on the lower lawns, a group of in-the-know theatregoers had gathered with picnic chairs ready to watch a performance of Jane Austen’s Emma.

This was the third performance of the play in the gardens by travelling theatre company Heartbreak Productions. The troupe had already visited Sheffield earlier in the summer with an adaptation of David Walliams’ children’s book Mr Stink and a 1920s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Over their 23 years of touring, they have set up camp in parks, gardens and stately homes across the country, offering what they call “a unique outdoor theatre experience”.

The play kicked off to a volley of prosecco bottles popping in the audience – one of the perks of open-air theatre – and we were first introduced to a cast of painters who hoped to be artistically inspired by Emma’s story. They cropped up throughout the show to comment on the action in a ‘play within a play’ set up.

Props and theatrical devices related to the painting theme were used cleverly throughout. A flapping easel was used to comic effect to represent a bird during a country stroll, paintbrushes were used as flowers, and each new character was introduced in a tableau with a frame held around them. When there weren’t enough actors to cover all of the characters on stage, portraits were held up instead.

The abundance of characters meant that apart from Emma, played to charmingly naïve perfection by Amy Gardyne, the rest of the cast of six were each required to play multiple roles. There were so many Eltons, Dixons, Westons and Fairfaxes that at times it was hard to keep up. Victoria Croft, first as the girlish Harriet and then as the muted Jane Fairfax, and Anna Rowland as the chattering Miss Bates and then the sour-faced Mrs Elton both demonstrated impressive versatility and comic timing.

After a slightly slow start, when the sarcastic comment from one of the artists that “Austen does go on a bit” rang a little too true, the drama gathered pace in the second half. The plot moved from being contained within densely packed dialogue to being acted out in front of us, but before we could get to the denouement, in classic British summer fashion, a downpour of biblical proportions was unleashed. There was a scramble for cagoules and as some of the more hardened audience members cocooned themselves under umbrellas, others ran to the shelter of the marquee. The actors, well versed in outdoor performance in the UK, valiantly carried on and eventually the rain died down just in time for Knightley and Emma to finally realise what had been obvious all along.

This was a well-acted, tongue-in-cheek, creative adaptation of a classic. From the live piano which accompanied scene transitions to the many costume changes, the production was a well-oiled machine. The novelty of being in the great outdoors made for a wonderfully informal way to enjoy theatre. Just make sure you take a brolly.

heartbreakproductions.co.uk

Kate MacCarthy