Review: Newport Playgoers Society’ Vanity Fair, Dolman Theatre, Newport

Andy Howells reviews Newport Playgoers Society’s Vanity Fair, the final show of the company’s 2021-22 season.

“Welcome to Vanity Fair!” announces Catherine Morgan’s narrator in Newport Playgoer’s lively presentation of Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of WM Thackeray’s riotous regency tale.

What a welcome! Work on this stage presentation began over three years ago, delayed in main by a pandemic beyond Thackeray’s conceivable imagination. This presentation however was worth the wait. Vanity Fair, a tale of love, loss and lust, is nothing short of a triumph, resplendent in colour and vividly exciting performances.

Far from been a regency romance, Vanity Fair combines Thackeray’s original intent to satirise the British Society of the early 1900s with 21st Century “girl-power” projected from the survival instincts of its female leads. Director Clare Drewitt strikes the balance perfectly matching Vanity Fair’s narrative with bursts of contemporary Girl Power anthems.

The set design is a visual feast of rolling dice, spinning wheel and card play indicating that the characters are playing the game of their lives. An adaptable, eye-catching triumph for its creators Linda Ward & Graeme Johnson, each prop allows scene changes to move along with no delay.

Liz Keech’s flirtatious and care-free Becky Sharp is undoubtedly a born-survivor as she makes her way to the top of social-society despite opposition from those she encounters. A portrayal as “Sharp” as her character’s name in humour, wit and delivery, Miss Keech maintains her characters strength and resourcefulness, and has no issues making Becky a likable heroine of her generation.  

Meanwhile, Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley portrayed by Emily Smallwood, dallies on the brink of personal happiness as she sells herself into a false security with an idealised love, unaware of a better life waiting in the wings. Amelia could easily be seen as the weaker of the two characters, but Miss Smallwood projects Amelia’s bravery and determination so brilliantly, her personality compliments that of Becky Sharp’s. This gives both leads wonderful characters to captivate the audience with as well as bounce off each other as the narrative drives along.

Catherine Morgan’s enigmatic narrator maintains a wondrous and cheeky presence as the Fair’s Manager & Auctioneer throughout the proceedings. Miss Morgan’s performance frequently breaks the fourth wall, pulling the audience further into the story with intrusive but humorous questions.

Nicola Davies brilliantly characterises the aged Aunt Matilda. Mostly bathchair bound, her protests at the union of her beloved nephew Rawden with Becky are humorously opinionated, much to the audience’s appreciation.

Vanity Fair also has its share of strong male characters. Steele Quinnell brings a “love to hate” quality to gentleman rogue George. While it’s possible to feel much sympathy towards Nick Brimble’s portrayal of “honest villain” Rawdon, caught up between his love of Becky and his own overbearing father and aunt.

Steve Drowley’s Sir Pitt Crawley and Graeme Johnson’s Lord Steyne are humorous examples of 18th century male-chauvinism and work brilliantly in the narrative. Stephen Hopkins Major Dobbin and Stuart Fouweather’s Jos Sedley are undoubtedly Vanity Fair’s underdogs (the latter delivering very funny moments along the way) and give enjoyable performances throughout.

The company as a whole work brilliantly within the context of the narrative, parading the stage across several crowd scenes, while simultaneously creating a lively atmosphere. This also includes the appearances of three adorable children who will no doubt be making further appearances with Playgoers in the future!

Vanity Fair is one of Newport Playgoers Society brightest and finest triumphs in recent years and is set to delight outdoor audiences when it plays Minack Festival from 3rd to 7th July 2022.

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