Lady Anna All at Sea at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Lady Anna

Lady Anna - Credit: Archant

Lady Anna: All at Sea is an eloquently written, beautifully acted, tightly directed costume drama that engages and delights.

Inspired by Anthony Trollope’s book, Lady Anna, the play was commissioned last year by the Trollope Society to mark 200 years since the author’s birth.

Playwright Craig Baxter has placed the story onboard ship where Trollope, his wife and their maid are travelling to Australia to visit his son Frederick who has become a sheep farmer out there. It was on the voyage that he wrote Lady Anna.

Trollope is a prodigious writer, in his 67 years, he wrote 47 novels, plus other works, so we see him on board writing his nine pages a day before breakfast.

He discusses his plots and characters with his fellow passengers who are intrigued by the twists and turns. Ingeniously and without a change of costume, just a change of voice, attitude and demeanour, the actors playing Trollope, his wife, his maid and the other travellers switch from these roles to becoming the characters in his story.

Our heroine is Lady Anna Lovel who is in love with a tailor. Her mother forbids them to marry.

But this is no simple attraction between the classes. The two have known each other since they were children. Anna’s mother, who married an Earl, was the victim of a bigamous marriage and deserted by her husband, leaving Anna supposedly illegitimate.

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Her mother, the Countess Lovel has spent Anna’s childhood fighting for her rights through the courts, funded by a family friend, a tailor – Anna’s tailor’s father.

But when the Earl finally dies and Anna is declared his heiress, her mother averts her gaze from the young man’s father’s goodness and fights equally hard to keep them apart.

Jonathan Keeble is magnificent as Trollope. When he strides down the ship’s deck talking with satisfaction of the progression of his work, you believe you have met the author and Keeble’s changes of character are magnificent.

Maggie O’Brien is a joy to watch as both the fierce Countess Lovel, and Rose Trollope, the author’s wife and so is Rhiannon Handy, playing Lady Anna and Isabella, Trollope’s maid in a deliciously natural way that makes them both real. All seven of the cast have dual or triple roles and it works. S

Simon Robinson and Adam Scott-Rowley and Simon Robinson provide a great contrast as the two suitors seeking Anna’s hand. Robinson plays the tailor, Daniel Thwaite Scott-Rowley plays Anna’s cousin who inherits the title of Earl. He has inherited the name and she the money, so he thinks the solution is for them to marry but he genuinely falls in love with her.

All the performances in this production are strong and Colin Blumenau’s direction is crisp and slick – the actors change their characters as subtly as flowers opening in sunshine. You don’t notice the process, you just see they have and it never confuses or jars – that’s quite a trick.

This play is charming. It’s as light as a feather, described by some of the publicity as a soufflé. It takes a lot of skill to create that kind of confection and carried off this well will always be a treat.