WITH beautiful swim-suited lovers romping in a pile of foam, a club soundtrack of banging dance and hip hop and a complete absence of bodices, bonnets and breeches, the grin-along production of Persuasion being staged this week at the Oxford Playhouse may sound like a total rework of Jane Austen’s, Regency classic.

Its genius, though, is that it is not.

Austen may be one of our greatest writers, blessed with a wry sense of humour and taste for parody. But her staid and formulaic tales of unrequited love and obsessing over nuptials could hardly be less relevant today, could they?

Read more: Running Oxford musician pays tribute to four-minute mile legend Roger Bannister at Iffley Road track

Her cast of over-privileged spoilt young things, flouncing around in a flurry of frills, with nothing to worry about other than the course of glacial courtships, surely have nothing to say to us now?

This masterly adaptation of the 1818 classic shows that it is bitingly relevant.

Replace chamber quartets for thumping bangers by Frank Ocean, Dua Lipa and a louche Cardi B; swap puffed sleeves, tailcoats and lace for club wear and tracksuits; and sparingly pepper the 19th century dialogue with well-chosen contemporary references; and her mannered musings become an engaging rom-com we can not just relate to, but laugh knowingly along with.

Oxford Mail: Matilda-Bailes-_-Adam-Deary-in-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

Jeff James and James Yeatman’s joint adaptation is a masterpiece of stagecraft. While staying faithful to Austen’s tale of missed opportunity, longing and hope, it places it very much in the ‘now’.

It would have been all too easy to just transplant the narrative to the present day and rip up Austen’s elegant phrasing, as has been done ad-nauseum.

Oxford Mail: Persuasion -  Sasha-Frost-Fred-Fergus-_-Matilda-Bailes-in-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

Instead, this co-production by the Oxford Playhouse, Rose Theatre and Alexandra Palace is a love letter to Jane, which deserves to pull in punters who wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed of going to see her work.

The magic is down to the uniformly strong cast. It is almost unfair not to mention them all (so apologies!), but there are standouts.

Sasha Frost plays the brooding Anne, whose battered love life is at the heart of the story. Frost’s beautifully poised, honestly understated, graceful performance stands in contrast to the high-jinx, shallowness and bombast around her.

Will she, or won’t she – we wonder – find herself back in the arms of her first-love, Captain Wentworth (the suitably dashing, ram-rod straight Fred Fergus turning on the gallant naval charm) whom she was ‘persuaded’ to dump eight years previously because he was broke but who is now a loaded officer?

Oxford Mail: Persuasion - Matilda-Bailes-_-Caroline-Moroney-in-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

Propelling it all along are Matilda Bailes (remarkably making her stage debut) and Caroline Moroney, for two sparkling double-acts: as Anne’s garrulous sister Elizabeth and her close companion Mrs Clay; and as sisters Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove – a riotous pair of socialite party girls.

While living - as they say - 'their best lives', their own romantic entanglements are eyebrow raising, the latter engaged to be married to her clergyman cousin, cue much banter and a classic 'misunderstanding' which wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Eastenders or Made in Chelsea. Good old Austen!

The sparkling pair, ingeniously matched, inject the humour and adrenaline, along with Dorian Simpson as their all-too believably shallow, bloke-ish onstage brother Charles.

The witty dialogue is interspersed with stunning set pieces – including one jaw-dropping scene in the sea at Lyme Regis (here portrayed as a hedonistic Ibiza-like party paradise, which it may well have been, relatively).

A dance scene is also beautifully staged, a masterpiece of phased sound, lighting and choreography - powerful movement and an equally striking lack of it.

Oxford Mail: Persuasion -The-cast-of-Persuasion-_-photo-by-The-Other-Richard

The smooth melding of Regency Bath with colour-drenched, bass-thumping clubland is down to boundary-smashing director Jeff James and the technical prowess of the entire creative team: Alex Lowde (design), Lucy Carter (lighting design), Ben and Max Ringham (music and sound design), Morgann Runacre-Temple (movement) and Layla Madanat (assistant director).

To say much more would spoil the surprises, of which there are many. Suffice to say, this is one of the best things I have seen on this stage, and I can guarantee you’ll love it... whether you are an Austen aficionado or someone who thinks they hate her.

Let's just call it 'gateway' Austen.

Come for the classic tale of tangled love, but stay for the tunes, laughs, outstanding performances and beautiful stagecraft. This is theatre at its best – and most accessible.

Do not miss it.

  • Persuasion runs at the Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street, until Saturday, May 14. See oxfordplayhouse.com

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok

Got a story for us? Send us your news and pictures here

List an event for free on our website here