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Pride & Prejudice*(*Sort Of)

by on 14 February 2023

Truths Riotously Acknowledged

Pride & Prejudice*(*Sort Of)

by Isobel MacArthur, after Jane Austen

Tron Theatre Company and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, at Richmond Theatre until 18th February, then on tour until 24th June

Review by John Davies

Anyone expecting a prim and proper, po-faced reworking of a Jane Austen classic will be very disappointed.  Here is a Pride and Prejudice for our era – think speed-dating with karaoke.  In Isobel McArthur’s adaptation the corsets are off and everyone is free to be more honest (brutally so at times).  This makes for both a funny and insightful exploration of the novel and the social structures of the day.  The production has comedy at its heart and – as the writer points out – rightly so, as so many previous productions have simply omitted or ignored the humour that courses through the novel.  As she said when interviewed – Pride & Prejudice* is “a Riot” and so is this production.

The production premiered in Glasgow in 2018, later transferred to the West End and won an Olivier Award.  Whether you know Pride and Prejudice or not doesn’t matter.  The play does not assume any knowledge or any affection for Jane Austen – it conveys the story well and stands on its own merits.  It is a slick, fast-paced production, adapting and updating the novel into a hilarious comedy, performed with huge energy by a multi-talented quintet of actor-musicians.

A clean, simple set design conveys grand houses and a literature backdrop (books are in evidence everywhere).  Coupled with the mostly one-piece costumes to enable quick changes, this allows the actors freedom to fully exploit the space (stairs, cupboards and the auditorium) and their characterisations.  Five female servants – who are often ignored in such stories, but critical to the plot (“who can have a liaison without clean sheets”) re-tell the Darcy – Elizabeth Bennett romance – playing all the key characters – complete with rapid costume changes and perfectly timed entrances worthy of a classic farce.  They take us through the fripperies, faux pas and fancies of the tale with a few ‘Eff Orf’s thrown in.  A particularly lovely touch is that the servants retain their own accents within the characterisations of the novel, so we are treated to a broad Welsh Lizzie Bennett (a hilarious Emmy Stonelake) and a Mrs Bennett (Dannie Harris) channelling Catherine Tate’s Nan! 

With the modern dialogue and addition of commentary on the action, comes a heightened sense of the absurdity and outrageousness of the perceived differences in gender and class, and the clear statement that much of this remains true today.  You are invited to laugh at the ignorance (particularly of men) in the early 19th Century and then recognise this could be set in 2023.

There is quite a bit of plot to convey, as the play retains all the key episodes of the original novel.  So occasionally a scene will be predominantly verbal story telling rather than dramatic or comedic action, but the pace rarely lets up and the crisp, clear writing ensures the plot and characterisations are clear without the need for excessive dialogue.  The use of a range of pop songs to both punctuate the action (Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain as Elizabeth’s commentary on first meeting Darcy) and add emotion to a character’s plight allows the audience to draw breath without losing the energy.

Isobel McArthur, Writer

The five actors do a superb job of creating the range of characters and, while it seems churlish to pick out individuals, Leah Jamieson manages to wring every ounce of comic potential from her portrayals of Mary Bennett and the Rev Collins.  But this is very much an ensemble piece and the women all give strong performances, with good musicianship and in every case a keen sense of comic timing.  Indeed, many of the laughs came simply from well-timed looks to the audience highlighting their despair, horror or confusion at their latest predicament 

The packed Monday night audience – of a broad age range – clearly loved the show and left buzzing with talk of favourite moments and characters, and in one memorable case delight and surprise that “Jane Austen could be that funny”.  The play might influence some people to pick up one of Jane Austen’s books, but I guarantee that even those with an aversion to costume dramas will find this production richly entertaining and through the laughter recognise some very modern messages in this Regency love story (sort of).

John Davies, February 2023

Photography courtesy of ATG

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