Giles Woodforde is impressed by the way Jessica Swale uses just nine actors

With a star-studded film and a popular television adaptation still fondly remembered by many, you would think that embarking on a new stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilty would be tempting fate. But that’s the task writer and director Jessica Swale has undertaken.

Furthermore, the adaptation has been commissioned by the Watermill, Newbury, which hardly has the production budget of Columbia Pictures or the BBC.

But the Watermill turns the comparative lack of cash into a virtue. In case you need a reminder of the story, when the twice-married Mr Dashwood dies, his grand house, Norland Park, is inherited by his only son John, the child of his first wife. His second wife, and their daughters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, are left with only a small income. Mr Dashwood had extracted a promise from his son that he would look after his half-sisters and their mother, but John’s grasping wife Fanny can’t wait to hustle them out of the house.

Designer Philip Engleheart’s simple but effective set covers the evicted Dashwoods’ enforced move to a cottage in Devon by simply lowering a wall, so that the huge windows of Norland Park instantly become much smaller, making the space look claustrophobic. Without the gloss and distraction of a big costume drama, the daughters’ predicament becomes all the clearer — in a class-ridden society, if they don’t marry into respectable money, the poorhouse could soon beckon.

A nine-strong cast play 19 parts, so there’s much adroit changing of voices and costumes. Jane Booker most successfully switches from Fanny Dashwood’s grating voice to the warm, gossipy tones of Mrs Jennings, who befriends the Dashwoods in Devon: using the same actor for both characters heightens the contrast between them. Alice Haig transforms from youngest Dashwood daughter Margaret into rough and ready Lucy, who comes complete with West Coun-try accent. Paul Bigley and Graham O’Mara cover eight male characters between them, and Jenny Funnell por-trays three women, including the rat-her ineffectual second Mrs Dashwood.

Four major roles get individual actors. Making her professional debut, Cassie Layton is perhaps a shade too theatrically hysterical when she discovers that the man of her dreams, Willoughby (William Owen, suitably slippery) is a gold-plated s**t. Peter Ormond reveals the tender side of outwardly stuffy Colonel Brandon, while Sally Scott is memorable as eldest sister Elinor — outwardly bright and encouraging, her face clearly shows that sadness lurks beneath the surface.

Jessica Swale’s adaptation works well, and she moves it along at a cracking pace.

This is a most effective production.

Sense and Sensibility
Watermill, Newbury
Until May 10
Tickets: 01635 46044