An Education: Reviewed

This years’ On the Rocks Festival sees the theatrical debut of the coming-of-age drama An Education. Based on the Oscar-nominated film with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, the film that launched Carey Mulligan’s career is a highly acclaimed and beloved classic making this adaption no easy task for director Minoli da Silva.

Like the film da Silva’s stage adaptation follows the story of sixteen-year-old Jenny Mellor (Ellie Burke), an intelligent and beautiful schoolgirl who is obsessed with everything French and aspires to study English at Oxford, pressured by her strict father. Returning from her cello rehearsal on a rainy afternoon, she meets David Goldman (Liam Smith), a charming older man. David whisks her away to a glamorous 1960’s London of concerts, auctions and jazz clubs, and a romance blossoms between the two that upends Jenny’s life.

The StAge is aptly transformed into suburban Twickenham and chic London, and takes the audience into Jenny’s family’s house, her school, a sophisticated London sitting room, and even to the sights of Paris. Da Silva’s production team makes good use of the space with several small sets on one stage that are capably designed. The play is accompanied by video projections of footage from mid-century London and Paris street-scenes, which seemed little more than a gimmick at first, but proved to be well-utilized as the backdrop to the Parisian scenes. The play is accentuated with a soundtrack that is, if not identical, very similar to the film’s score. Lorna Govan’s costumes were especially noteworthy for being vital in evoking a feeling for the period and supported the actor’s performance beautifully.

Not unusual for the St Andrews student theatre scene, the quality of the performances was outstanding across the board. Da Silva made an excellent choice with Ellie Burke, who shone as Jenny, and displayed an impressive range as a witty and confident performer who also convinces in the more vulnerable moments. Charlie Flynn stole the show as Jenny’s father Jack, perhaps the most thankless character, and managed to breath fresh life into every scene. In the brief moments where the headmistress Miss Walters enters the scene, India Parker’s stage presence stood out. Charles Vivian’s performance of the socially awkward schoolboy Graham garnered sympathetic reactions from the audience, as he managed to tap into the humanity of this primarily comic role.

This may be to blame on the venue’s acoustics, but the actors’ voices did not carry well to the auditorium (even though I probably raised the average age of the audience by one or two years, I am not yet hard of hearing and was also sitting near the front). It did not help that the music accompanying the scenes was often louder than the dialogue and drowned out the actors’ voices. There were also some issues with the timing of lighting and sound especially during scene changes and at times the actor’s faces were – clearly unintentionally – in the dark during their scenes. Unfortunately, these technical hiccups occasionally made it seem more like witnessing a late-stage rehearsal than opening night.

An Education, the play, is extremely faithful to An Education, the film. Da Silva fundamentally adapted the screenplay word by word, with only very minor changes. Owing to the popularity of the film and Hornby’s tight writing, it is probably wise not to mess with something this good in the first place.  However, she might be trying to emulate the film a little too much, even going so far as to use video projections and soundtrack to create a distinctly cinematic atmosphere. Despite the brilliant performances and the skilful direction this resulted in a lack of esprit, that could have been fashioned with even small innovations, or an attempt to interpret the story not just for the stage, but also for the contemporary context. After all Jenny’s story has lost none of its relevance and poignance in 2019.

Anyone who is a fan of An Education will enjoy seeing the story brought to life in Minoli da Silva’s stage adaptation. The pleasure of watching some of St Andrews best performers interpret the iconic characters alone makes An Education a worthwhile and entertaining evening at the theatre.

An Education is on again this evening, 8th April, and tickets can be purchased on the Byre Theatre Website.