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Sense and Sensibility - OVO and Pitlochry Festival Theatre Interview

OVO and Pitlochry Fesitval Theatre have teamed up for a new production based on Jane Austen’s classic novel Sense and Sensibility.

Marianne Dashwood, wild and impulsive, falls dangerously in love with the charming but roguish John Willoughby, ignoring her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo.

Photo by Fraser Band

Whilst Marianne wears her heart on her sleeve, Elinor suffers her own private heartbreak but conceals her true feelings, even from those closest to her.

Will the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love?

One of English literature’s most beloved classics is given a contemporary makeover in a fresh and funny adaptation by award winning Scottish playwright Frances Poet.

We caught up with cast members Robin Simpson (Sir John Middleton/Mrs Ferrars), Kirsty Findlay (Elinor Dashwood) and Chris Coxon (John Dashwood/Colonel Brandon) to learn more. 

Where did your arts career begin?
Robin Simpson: In school, I guess. As far as acting is concerned, that came quite late. I went to art school after I did my A levels, because I always wanted to do art. But when I got to art school, I realised that it wasn't really for me. I didn't really know what it was that I wanted to do. And at A levels, I did theatre studies and enjoyed it. I thought, if this art thing doesn't work out, maybe I could do drama instead. I didn't really do any acting until I was about 18. 

Kirsty: Well, my mum was a singermy dad plays the drums, and a lot of my family were in a band together so I kind of fell into music quite easily. But my mum and dad were very into musicals, so I went to the theatre quite a lot. And then from there just went straight into drama groups and shows and studied it at school and it progressed from there.

Chris: I always did amateur dramatics as a kid. I think I did my first proper show when I was about four or five years old. I just always loved it. It wasn't until I was about 11 or 12 that I had my first trip down to London and went to a West End Show that I realised people do this for a job. Those people on that stage, that's how they earn their living. So that was my first idea that maybe I could do that. I carried on doing lots of am-dram and dance lessons and music lessons and went to see the careers advisor at school and I told them I either wanted to be an actor or a musician and they looked in their book and said, actor, that's not a job. Forget that. Musician? You can join the army and be in the band, that's the only option if you want to be a musician. Luckily, I completely ignored that and went off and instead of doing A Levels, I went to Newcastle College to do a musical theatre course. Then, I auditioned through proper drama schools, got into one called Arts Ed in London and luckily, got a scholarship, because I wouldn't have been able to afford to go otherwise. Then, off the back of that, I got an agent, and my career went on from there. I accidentally fell into the world of acting musicianship, so that really sticks it to my careers advisor, going I’m an actor and a musician now, and they are real jobs!

Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on you?
Robin: Film performances, to be honest. I'm a big film fan. There were lots that I watched when I was a teenager that I just thought had fun. And they're often quite weird performances, and there are still to this day some performances that I watch where I don't know how they do itThe performances where I don’t know how they do it are few and far between.

Kirsty: As a teenager, I saw Imelda Staunton in the West End doing various shows, a lot of her Stephen Sondheim stuffI followed along and I’d try to see her in it, because that's what I think a good musical theatre performer should be is someone who totally owns the stage, and has a confidence about them.

Chris: Growing up, I was really inspired by a lot of the old kind of golden age of Hollywood movies. I really love Danny Kaye still to this day, and will happily just drift away and watch a Danny Kaye movie. Lots of those old Rodgers and Hammersteins’ and things like that. Particularly the charming clowns like Danny Kaye were the ones that really inspired me, and who I tried to emulate.

Photo by Fraser Band

What can you tell me about this production of Sense and Sensibility and your role/s within the show?
Robin: This is Sense of Sensibility adapted by Frances Poet, a wonderful adaptation. It's a very modern, fresh, fascinating and funny take on the classic novel. I play Sir John Middleton in it. John Middleton is a wonderful character to play. He doesn't have any responsibility of carrying the plotI can just breeze on, have a giggle, have a laugh. He's so full of life, and he's a wonderful character to play. And then there's Mrs Ferrars. Edward Ferrars’ mother, who's the complete opposite of Sir John, really. She's very strict and harsh. She's also a wonderful character to play. Bit of a surprise, I think, for the audience to see me come on as Mrs Ferrars. It's also very funny. 

Kirsty: I didn't know Sense and Sensibility before doing this production. And I swithered about whether I was going to watch the film or the TV series before I did it and then decided not to. So, I came to it with quite fresh eyes. I'm playing Elinor who is one of the Dashwood sisters, and she's got a lot of sense, as per the title, and she isn't very good at acknowledging her own feelings, but likes to do the logical polite thing, and that can sometimes get in her way. 

Chris: This production of Sense and Sensibility has all of the classic tropes that you'd expect of Jane Austen. This adaptation is a great adaptation for 2024 and some of the new things that we've brought to it which are mainly down to the writer and the director will help to bridge that gap of what makes it relevant to an audience in 2024.

What inspired you to take this role on the show?
Robin: When I auditioned for the shows, I read for different parts for Sense and Sensibility. I read for Colonel Brandon's role. So, it was a little bit of a surprise when they came back and said ‘We want you to be Mrs Ferrars’. I said ‘okay!’, but I was also reading for Beautiful and Footloose at the same time, so I guess they wanted to see a broad range of things and then work out the casting later

Kirsty: Because I auditioned for the three shows at the one time, I actually didn't know which of the Dashwood sisters I was going to play because it was dependent on age and the other cast. I didn't know what I was going to play. But I was always gunning for Elinor, and I kind of knew that she was the one that I wanted to play.

Chris: I've actually played Colonel Brandon before in a very different production. I work a lot with a company called The Pantaloons, who do a lot of clowning. As I mentioned, I like clowning, so this is quite a different production. It's nice to revisit a familiar character but coming from a slightly different angle. 

When preparing to audition or even since you were cast do you go back to the original novel or do you let the script do your work?
Robin: Both. I remember years ago working on Travels With My Aunt, a Graeme Green novel, and I was working with another actor, who I love dearly, but I was reading the novel and he said, ‘Oh, you don't need to do that. The script should do everything for you.’ And I disagree with that, because I think if the writer, the adapter, can go to the original novel, through necessity, of course, and come up with the script, then the actor should be able to go back to the original and come up with their character as well. There's so much that must be cut in an adaptation for film or theatre. Otherwise, you've got a six-hour long Sense and Sensibility, and all the stuff that's cut is probably quite important background information. I think you should always go back to the novel. The only instance where that's not the case is when the adaptation is so wildly different to the original novel that there’s not much point. But with this adaptation, it follows the story of the novel so closely that, yes, there's an awful lot of background information on your character that you won't get. And I think adaptations are different in that way, to say, a play that's written as a play for the theatre, an original play, but you always have to do your research if you're doing a play about a particular time in history, a particular political or whatever it may be, you always have to do your research. 

Kirsty: Since the beginning of the process, I read the book and took down notes of important details, but because it is an adaptation, it's never going to be exactly the same. So up to a point, I would only keep the things that were useful in the kind of heart of the story and let go of the other stuff or stick to the script.

Chris: I like it to be a little bit of both. I will admit, I didn't read the entire novel this time around, because I have read it before, so I dipped in and out of it, just for reference points. But I think it's always worth going back to original source materials and seeing what there is. But that doesn't mean that you have to, you don't have to treat that as gospel. You can then decide whether you want to use that or not.
Do you do a deep dive in the culture and period of the story in developing your role?
Kirsty: That was a bit complicated for this production actually because we went back and forth on how contemporary it was going to be. We talked a little bit about greeting people and what that would be like, but generally, we didn't do a deep dive into the style.

Photo by Fraser Band

Why do you think this story has had such enduring popularity?
Robin: Because it's so well written. 

Kirsty: I think specifically for this story, everyone can see a little bit of themself in both sisters. I mean, it's very binary, obviously, because it's literally someone who's more guided by sense and someone who's more guided by their feelings, but I think everyone can see both sides of it and maybe think about how they can adjust themselves to keep themselves happy. 

Chris: I think it endures because it really captures something that is universal about humans, about love and first loves and attachments and how growing up can change that. And having feelings but not being able to express them, I think are universal ideas. 

What keeps you inspired?
Kirsty: Good productions. Being in a room with really talented people keeps me inspired. Working with talented actors and seeing good theatre or films or anything that ignites something in me, which can be found anywhere. 

Chris: On a long run of things, it can be easy for things to get stale. But one of the reasons that I love doing theatre, as opposed to film or TV, as fun as film and TV can be, it’s that doing it to a different audience every single night to take the audience on this journey with you. And because you're telling a whole story in just a couple of hours, there's an immediacy to that always keeps me going, making that connection with the audience.
Why should anyone book tickets for Sense and Sensibility?
Robin: Because it's such a fantastic story.

Kirsty: I think it's a good twist. The script is quite close to the original, it keeps the heart of it, but it's got a bit of a twist on the original story.

Chris: Because you will have a great night. You'll have fun. There's great music, there's great costumes, there's lots of laughs in the show. But there's also, there's some really touching moments. There are the ones you expect and I think there are also some unexpected ones as well. I think you will come away thinking what a great night you have had. 

Sense and Sensibility runs at OVO’s Roman Theatre  in St Albans from 2nd July - 7th July and 12th - 18th August 2024. You can buy tickets drum

The production also plays at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland until 27th September 2024. Tickets are available from

Photo by Fraser Band.

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