Emma/Malvern Theatres

AS you might expect, there’s more match-making taking place throughout this Jane Austen epic than in a Swan Vestas factory.

And speaking of which, just who carries a light for whom in this most orderly collision of drawing room mayhem, manners and stuttered declarations of affection?

Well, as is usual with any Austen work, there are quite a few surprises along the way as the delightfully bossy boots Emma Woodhouse (Bethan Nash) pokes her perfectly formed little hooter into everyone else’s business yet neglecting her own in the process.

Nash is perfectly suited playing the prim heiress, obviously up to the task, and shining brighter than the harvest moon hanging low in the sky over Epsom Downs, the setting for this late-Georgian feast of frippery.

Polly Misch as Harriet Smith rises like a spring skylark in this, her first professional gig, twittering and wittering her way skywards. Her bird-like persona exceeds even that of the supremely wonderful Miss Bates (Kate Copeland) whose voice becomes so shrill at times that the drinks cabinet’s cut glass is in mortal peril of shattering.

No Austen creation is complete without the Mr Darcy factor and this department is amply catered for by George Kemp’s swashbuckling Frank Churchill, a rakish vision in leather wellies and a voice with more crack than his well-wielded riding crop. He glides across the stage with all the elegance and grace of a gazelle migrating along the Great Rift Valley.

Director Colin Blumenau powers this essay in upper class idleness along by ensuring all gag potential is maximised. And that’s one reason why Hannah Genesius is such a wheeze as her hyperactive Mrs Elton knocks the stuffing out of all the verbal stuffiness.

There are plenty of comic moves too from Nicholas Tizzard doubling as Emma’s bumbling old dad and the hapless Mr Elton, whose velvet togs give him the look of a slightly superannuated little Lord Fauntleroy who’s just broken the greenhouse window and been sent to his room with no supper by nanny.

Meanwhile, Rhys Jennings (Mr Robert Martin) and Georgie Oulton (Jane Fairfax) flits and flaps around designer Libby Watson’s set with all the grasshopper abandon that early 19th century manners might allow.

But folks, you need to watch out for Mr Knightley (Phillip Edgerley) the dark horse who’s certainly worth putting money on…

Emma – with its preposterously romantic themes and decorous language – runs until Saturday (July 1) and is not to be missed.

John Phillpott