Event Report: Jane Austen and the Waterman


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a large audience in possession of the wonderful ballroom at The Dolphin Hotel, must be in want of an hour’s entertainment… preferably something to do with Jane Austen and Southampton.

On Sunday 22nd October, we gathered in the large room our celebrated Regency era author danced in as a young woman, to watch our commissioned musical, Jane Austen and the Waterman. Written by acclaimed playwrights Philip Glassborow and Cecily O’Neill, who each took on a character to bring to life, and starring well-known actors Mervyn Stutter and Cathy Sara, the musical offered a delightful afternoon’s entertainment.

We were introduced to the musical by the High Sheriff of Hampshire, our Guest of Honour. Philip Glassborow told us about the play, and Charlie Hislop about the festival and the commission itself.

History was in the form of our characters. It was in the form of the Webler square piano used to accompany the stars. And it was all around us. The humour was top-notch, perfectly balanced with everything else on offer. And the music, “well, Madam,” as Stutter’s Charles Dibdin would likely say, it was splendidly authentic and absolutely Sotonian.

Based around a fictional meeting between the famed author and composer (Jane Austen and Charles Dibdin were near contempories) the production switched back and forth between the characters. Sara’s Austen read aloud the letters she was writing in Southampton and Stutter’s Dibdin wittily pontificated about his popularity, fabulous career, and love of women from a stand, backed by his servant, James, from whom he frequently requested promotion of his musical scores. Whilst Austen gently tapped on the fourth wall, Dibdin threw a hammer at it, shattering it to fantastic effect; with Glassborow’s wonderfully timed wit at the helm, the laughter rang out around the room as Stutter showed us both why he is at favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe and why we should remember Dibdin – a Sotonian – more than we do.

This, from the opening section, is a fine example of what we heard:

What a wonderful song. I wonder who wrote it. Oh yes, of course – I did. Yes, indeed, it is I – Charles Dibdin. In the flesh as it were. Would you like to touch, madam? No, no, quite quite, but it is indeed me.

My lords, ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to say how delighted I am to be back in the city of my birth – fair Southampton – where my father was once the parish clerk. I was the eighteenth of his children – yes, the eighteenth! – and the last, you’ll be relieved to hear – as indeed was my poor mother!

The production was rounded off by Dibdin’s breaking into song during the times he held fort, an element that battled with the comedy for most loved element – Stutter’s voice is incredible. Sara, joining in for the last song, was a strong match and as the chorus rose from their seats dotted around the audience and took to the aisle, the production finished with a proverbial bang.

Dibdin may not have sold any of his hawked musical scores that day – and that’s just as well as he will likely need them again! – but the actors and playwrights sold their production with aplomb, and ensured that a great many people now know of Charles Dibdin. Just ask the lady in the audience whom Dibdin was courting.

Or ask one of our attendees, George, who had this to say: “What a privilege to see an entertainment about Jane Austen in the actual room in the Dolphin Hotel where she had attended a Ball. And to hear the words of her letter about the event, read aloud in that very room, was amazing.”

And that is it, in a nutshell. Fantastic.

Words and photos by Charlie Place, with thanks to Philip Glassborow and Rachel O’Neill.

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