Vanity Fair

Nov 17 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆   Jam packed

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 16 – Sat 19 Nov 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair at the Church Hill Theatre is a well directed, well acted production that falls victim to many of the problems inherent in putting a sprawling novel on the stage.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847 book is much celebrated (although not that often read). One of those huge 19th century serialised works, it often resembles more closely the 17th century picaresque tradition in its lack of moral certainty and its huge sweep of time and place.

Martin Dick (Jos), Charlie Robertson (Isidor) and Wendy Mathison (Mrs O’Dowd) in Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair. Pic: Marion Donohoe

Among Vanity Fair’s cast of social climbers, hypocrites, buffoons and preening dandies, no good deed apparently goes unpunished. Admittedly, it’s difficult to tell, as there is a genuine shortage of benevolence on display.

It is fitting to see this adaptation back in Edinburgh, as its first staging at the 1983 Fringe helped build the reputations of its adapter, the director Declan Donnelly, and of Cheek by Jowl, the company he continues to run with Nick Ormerod.

inventive and exaggerated

Two things about that original made it particularly representative of its era. One was the early 80s fashion for putting long and apparently untheatrical literary works on the stage.

The other was the inventive and exaggerated use of the visual imagination. The studiedly homespun, Poor Theatre-derived ethic, with its minimal or invisible props, was soon all the rage in the West End, to the extent that it quickly became the subject of parody.

Richard Spiers (Lord Steyne), Lynn Cameron (Lady Steyne) and Talia Rivers (Backy) in Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair. Pic Marion Donohoe

Leitheatre, under director Hillary Spiers, follows in this tradition with considerable skill. Good use is made of onstage furniture consisting of nothing more than a collection of simple blocks. The nine-strong cast negotiate the constant swapping of roles, plus the requirement for all of them to act as narrator at times, with a minimum of fuss.

At times the parade of entrances and exits does begin to pall, but this is hardly the fault of this production. Shorn of any novelty value, it is all too clear that there are some aspects of the adaptation that have not worn well.


The story is just too long and involved for the time and space available in this medium. Short scenes feature characters explaining what they are doing rather than interacting. In contrast to the inventive staging, it comes across as static and lacking in drama.

Talia Rivers (Becky) in Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair. Pic Marion Donohoe

Spiers and her cast do keep things pacy and involving, however. The switching of characters means the performers are often called upon to change accent and acting style – something which is not always 100% successful, but works extremely well on the whole.

The contrast between the more overtly comic characters and comparatively realistic ones does occasionally jar. Perhaps, in what is after all a largely satirical work, a more expansive style might pay dividends. Despite the continuing relevance of the themes, in the end spending so much time in the company of such horrible people begins to seem like hard work.

Which is not to say that the performances are inadequate – far from it. There is a remarkably cohesive feel to the ensemble, in what is an impressive feat of memory, coordination and versatility.

a reservoir of sparkly glee

Talia Rivers has a thankless task playing Becky Sharp, co-opted by some critics as a kind of proto-feminist. This always runs into the problem that, while she is undoubtedly an individual doing her best to progress in a world biased against her on account of her being female and (relatively) poor, she nevertheless does it with an amorality that borders on the psychopathic. Rivers, however, is remarkably poised, with a reservoir of sparkly glee that is highly effective.

Cara King (Amelia) in Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair. Pic Marion Donohoe

Cara King has an equally unforgiving and central role as Amelia, prone to burst into tears at the drop of a bonnet. King has a grounded believability which helps anchor the production.

The other performers are called upon to play a bewildering variety of characters which they do with considerable charm. Martin Dick’s humorous pomposity and Allan Patterson’s wounded stoicism are very effective, while Richard Spiers does malevolent mischief and hangdog penury equally well.

Charlie Robertson and James Whitehead both give life to self-important army officers, with Robertson particularly good at transforming himself into other personas.

expansive comic

Wendy Mathison and Lynn Cameron are strong at expansive comic portrayals, with Mathison also having a neat line in spitefulness.

Clever use is made of scene-setting back projections and the costumes are particularly noteworthy.

Once again, it all just goes to show that just because you can put a long book on stage, it doesn’t mean that you should. In the end, most of the problems here – the stop-start nature, the over-reliance on narration, a storyline that is far too rushed at times – are caused by the adaptation itself.

There remains a good humour and polish to this particular production that makes it successful.

Running time: Two hours 30 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 16 – Saturday 19 November 2022
Wed – Fri: 7.30 pm, Sat matinee only: 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

Company website:
Facebook: @Leitheatre
Instagram: @leitheatre
Twitter: @LeitheatreEdin

The cast of Leitheatre’s Vanity Fair: Richard Spiers, Lynn Cameron, Martin Dick, Charlie Robertson, Talia Rivers, James Whitehead, Cara King, Alan Patterson and Wendy Mathison. Pic Marion Donohoe


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