Writer: Tom Crawshaw
Director: Bips Mawson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
For those unfamiliar with Jane Austen, it’s not usual for one character to throw a blow-up pterodactyl at another in a fit of pique, yet in Tom Crawshaw’s new play Nonsense and Sensibility, showing Above the Arts in Covent Garden, this is exactly what happens. Film and TV-drama makers are less obsessed with Austen at the moment and it’s been a while since the last adaptation, having instead moved on to the seemingly meatier works of Dickens and Tolstoy. Yet, Austen’s character types and situations are instantly recognisable in this amusing spoof even when Crawshaw introduces a few “Classic Park” dinosaurs to liven the action.
Nonsense and Sensibility is actually a play within a play, and first we meet Emma who, while studying for her PhD on Austen, claims to have a found a lost work. She enlists the help of her actor friend Harriet to present a world-premiere dramatic reading for the gathered audience with the two playing all the roles. As they veer in and out of the story, tensions between the literary purists and her theatrical pal threaten to derail the story of love and fossil-hunting in Dorset.
This is a very silly play and it takes a while for the humour to settle with the audience who are initially unsure what to make of the slightly stagey opening as Emma and Harriet joke about a lost snake in the building. But once they begin the “lost” Austen play it’s clear that Crawshaw has a real understanding of the character tropes, scenarios and the language which draws the viewer into the shared ridiculousness of these stories. It is replete with a spirited and independent young heroine, haughty cousins, sexy blaggards, snobbish old women, creepy clergymen and posh men, with the main plot points taking place at key Austen-esque locations on the seafront and at the obligatory ball.
Crawshaw displays his knowledge by cleverly plundering the Austen canon, ticking off all the key themes including money, marriage, civility and more than a little snobbery. Dinosaurs aside, it is also full of anachronisms that may or may not be intended including talk of an fossil hunter from 1824 that Austen may have met – highly unlikely given her death in 1817 – and talk of “Victorian life” although Austen was firmly in the Regency period and some of her books were written much earlier than they were published.
The actors are clearly enjoying every minute of it and their ability to switch between the multiple roles – and there a huge amount of characters both male and female in various regional accents – is impressive, as are the uncanny recreations of the giant reptiles. The humour is a little cheesy and the sections as Emma and Harriet are less successful than the Austen spoof, feeling not quite as natural as it needs to. Nonetheless, Crawshaw’s play displays a genuine affection for Austen, and for Jurassic Park it turns out, as the heightened language of Austen’s civility clashes with Steve Spielberg’s dino-dramas. More nonsense than sensibility perhaps but if Pride and Prejudice can be reimagined with zombies then anything is possible.
Runs until3 April 2016 | Image: Contributed