Theatre is a sinful pastime and washing with hot water an extravagant luxury, so think yourselves lucky not to have been born in 19th century rural France. Balzac’s masterful novel Eugénie Grandet is named for the heroine and daughter of a mean winegrower who is trapped by her father’s ambitions to hold on to her and, most importantly, to his wealth. She falls for her cousin Charles who arrives penniless at the Grandet house on her 21st birthday. Her father reacts by packing him off to the New World but it comes too late to protect Eugénie and the family from the dangerous effects of love.
This is the first time the novel has been staged in English and this new adaptation by Jonathon Choat is so good you feel like you’ve just read the classic novel itself. Director Donnacadh O’Briain keeps things authentic with period costumes and simple wooden furniture. Eugénie floats about the stage in Lorna Ritchie’s Austen-worthy gowns, Charles has an incredible striped dressing gown and there is a cellist on stage providing soft musical accompaniment to the action.
The role of Eugénie requires a flexible, talented performer, capable of transforming herself from cute, lovestruck young girl to the more worldly, self-reliant businesswoman who emerges towards the end of the play. Jo Hartland rises ably to the challenge, enchanting with her nervous hand movements in the presence of lover Charles and her later resolute confidence in dealing with her business and marital affairs. The chemistry between Charles, played by Jack Parry-Jones, and Eugénie on their first encounter is incredibly believable. Roger Watkins also impresses as her father, Monsieur Grandet, the gruff, stubbly middle-aged miser, combining ugly tight-fistedness with a genuine love for his only child. Romantic, tragic and wonderfully acted, Eugénie Grandet is a show which will charm you and make you glad that the stifling 19th century is over.