Theatre Review: Vanity Fair, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

17 Mar

Vanity Fair

Pssst, have you heard the latest?? Cheryl’s back with Ashley but she hasn’t forgiven him, Britney’s out of of the psych ward but is struggling to get access to her kids, Brangelina are having a baby and Miss Becky Sharp has left Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, determined to make her way in society from her lair in Vanity Fair…

One of those tales of lusts, titles, husbands and wives isn’t strictly true (though you really couldn’t make Britney up): the story of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley’s induction into polite society, and the complex machinations that follow, is told in this new Royal Lyceum Theatre production of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic satire, Vanity Fair.

Now pushing 160 years old, the novel has been dusted down, its plot trimmed to within an inch of its life and the whole thing given a new sheen. It emerges in 2008 every bit as relevant to today’s celebrity obsessed culture as it was back in the day.

As the curtain rises, the characters each emerge from a slumber – some draped over furniture, one concealed within a wardrobe – to set the scene with a song. It’s an exuberant opening that sends the story barreling into the first act with unrestrained wit and a nod and a wink to the audience.

Steven McNicoll in particular is called upon to provide much of the humour in these first few minutes, succeeding admirably.

Vanity FairBased on a novel renowned for its bleak outlook on human nature, the author’s despair at the foolishness of his characters barely disguised, it’s refreshing to witness a play which seems to revel in the near ludicrousy of its staging: the physical backdrop against which the actors are placed is barely even there, with wicker baskets and chaise longues used to represent both horse drawn carriages and the bow of a passenger ship.

The clever use of props and a tendency for the actors to both read their lines and narrate the tale in the same breath, both adds and subtracts from the emotional power of the story. It’s a thin line between comedy and drama, though in general the source material is well represented.

Kim Gerard as Amelia and Sophia Linden as Becky are a fine teaming, with Linden awarded the best of the dialogue. Although very different characters, Becky the more dominant of the two, both actresses give them a real depth that is sometimes negated by the jokey style of the production.

To make a text appealing to a modern audience shouldn’t mean that it has to be altered beyond all recognition. While the humour and drama do occasionally jar, this version still entertains, succeeding enough to fall into the “accessible” category rather than that of “dumbed down”.

Vanity Fair is a reminder that the cult of celebrity has been around for a lot longer than we might think. Sadly, as I write this, on the day when the lead television news story in the UK is the stultifyingly dull divorce settlement of Paul and Heather Mills McCartney, I’d suggest that we have a long way to go before either vanity or opportunism are banished to the depths of obscurity they deserve.

Review by Jonathan Melville

Photos copyright Alan McCredie

Vanity Fair is on at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, from Friday 14 March until Saturday 12 April, see website for times.

Coming soon:

The 39 Steps at the Festival Theatre

Single Spies at the King’s Theatre

The Mother Ship at the Traverse

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