In Anthony Trollope’s bicentenary year, there are attempts to promote and re-examine the work of, I believe, one of the most underrated Victorian writers. This play, Lady Anna: All At Sea, has been commissioned by the Trollope Society and blends together the plot of Lady Anna (1871) with the real-life journey of Anthony and his wife Rose to Australia, where they are to witness their son’s marriage. I’ve read many Trollope novels, but Lady Anna isn’t one of them, meaning that I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen; but there is plenty to enjoy here for those familiar with the book.
A picture of Trollope overhangs the stage as we enter, and Libby Watson’s design, which cleverly consists of piles of books which double as drawers, seats and stepping stones, reflects the idea of Trollope writing the novel as he travels to Australia. Tim Frances plays the novelist in a convincing portrayal, full of energy and enthusiasm for his work as he continually contradicts the expectations of his fellow passengers. His wife, more concerned with social mores, is played by Caroline Langrishe, who also portrays the Countess Lovel, the mother of Lady Anna determined to see her daughter rise high in the world. Antonia Kinlay plays Anna herself, as well as the Trollopes’ maid, who enjoys reading her employer’s novels and is excited by the possibilities that Australia affords.
The central issue of Lady Anna is the dilemma the title character faces: whether she should seek to marry the Earl, Frederick (Adam Scott-Rowley), left penniless by the will of the old Earl who instead left all his money to his questionably legitimate daughter Anna, or socialist Daniel Thwaite (Will Rastall), the son of the tailor who took in Anna and her mother when they were friendless and alone. Nothing happens the way you think it will in Trollope’s world, and the play, penned with intelligence and wit by Craig Baxter, is a powerful reminder of just how good a writer he is. I particularly liked the scene in which Anna’s mother calls her an “impertinent slut” before turning to the audience and assuring us that this phrase does, indeed, appear in Trollope’s novel. The two story halves blend together well, the underlying theme being the issue of class, with Australia holding the promise of a more equal future.
I saw a preview of this production, but as there is only one preview, I can’t imagine the play will have changed a great deal by the official opening night. I’d say it’s a must-see for any fans of Trollope, and could well convert those who were previously indifferent to the author.