Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen)
Tron Theatre, Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and Blood of the Young Theatre, with partner theatres in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle and Oxford
The Lowry, Salford, January 19-21; 2hr 20min
(Also Storyhouse Chester, April 11-15; Leeds Grand, April 24-29; Blackpool Grand May 2-6)
Photographs from the West End, production
The enduring appeal of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, attracts interpretation across the board.
Current favourite, Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, arrives for a few days at The Lowry, its reputation securing the larger Lyric stage. I admit to slight nervousness: seeing a favourite novel reinterpreted is always fraught with concern.
I needn’t’ have worried. Only utter purists would fail to be charmed by this irreverent, bawdy, boisterous and very, very clever take on the great and well-known story – though anyone who has managed to escape P&P might struggle to understand some of the laughs.
We open with five actresses – not the five Bennett girls but apparently five Bennett household servants – making the Bennett household not only a little overstaffed, but also allowing an occasional outsider-commentary through a different lens, a clever reflection of Austen’s somewhat subtle use of her love story as an observation on society.
The actresses double-up, playing all the roles we know, minus a few who can be largely left out. There’s fun to be had, too, from the long-suffering, library-closeted Mr Bennett, represented only by the back of a chair, his newspaper and the occasional puff of smoke, reflecting the view that his presence in the family is almost entirely ineffectual, despite his intelligence and understanding.
There’s fun to be had too from guessing the songs from their intros. With over 50 years of pop songs to draw from, the writer makes brilliant choices for the karaoke moments. Which song would you choose to express Lizzie’s opinion of Darcy after their first meeting?
Emma Stonelake is wonderfully engaging as the feisty and, in this show, occasionally foul-mouthed Lizzie, emotionally available while very fussy and determined. Dannie Harris excels as the two mutually-opposed characters – the excitable, over-voluble, over-emotional Mrs Bennett and the taciturn and over-proud Mr Darcy. Mary Bennett is given a strong comedic focus by Leah Jamieson, written and performed with empathy in this enhanced role, as befits a modern interpretation.
Pride and Prejudice aficionados have always seen the universal in the characters, their reality and their self-positioning, awareness and delusion. Lizzie Bennett would not be out of place in today’s world, calling out male misbehaviour and exploitation, resisting conformity to unwelcome expectations, rallying to support those closest to her while asserting her own non-negotiables. All that is firmly reflected in this show.
Necessarily, the beautiful precision of Austen’s writing is largely lost, and it’s a huge but inevitable loss in a two-hour piece with songs.
This show is a little long at just over two hours, but the wit, the boisterousness, the fun of the occasional songs and clever on-stage tricks maintain interest while enhancing key elements of Austen’s keen observation. Serious moments, such as Darcy’s horrific proposal and his subsequent self-reflection, stand out from the general melee, as they should.
An engaging and fun evening, particularly for fans.