Mortimer generally follows the novel’s plot and incorporates a lot of its words directly into Fanny’s narration, and her “Pursuit of Love” is better the closer it sticks to the book. Unfortunately, when she strays from it, expanding on Mitford’s story, she has mostly bad ideas.
Her changes, particularly her elaboration of Fanny and Linda’s relationship, push the show in more literal, more lugubrious and, fatally, more melodramatic directions. The tragedy of Linda’s misbegotten attempts at love no longer slips in through the seams of the narrative. Things that were implicit and largely unjudged in the book, filtered through layers of stiff-upper-lip irony — Fanny’s self-pity, Linda’s obliviousness — are now foregrounded and, for the most part, rendered banal, with “Beaches”-level platitudes and sentimentality. Mortimer casts herself as the Bolter, in a role whose expansion has no obvious point beyond increasing our sympathy for Fanny.
Other additions to the story seem designed to make the male characters more odious — Uncle Matthew more of a violent ogre, Fanny’s husband, Alfred, more of a domineering prig. Allied with these is an exaggerated sense of the childhood country home, Alconleigh, as a prison to be escaped.
You could see these changes as part of a more contemporary, feminist reading. But they just contribute to a moralism that misses the tone of the book. Mitford could be absolutely judgmental when it came to taste and manners, but she was forgiving, if a bit sad, when it came to her characters’ life choices.
Along with James and Beecham, those who fare well in the production include Dominic West, who makes Uncle Matthew’s vein-popping tirades amusing, and Freddie Fox, who in a few scenes as Linda’s first husband, Tony, justifies her instant, ill-fated attraction to him.