Writer: Sara Pascoe from the book by Jane Austen
Director: Susannah Tresilian
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Play fast and loose with national treasures and you’re going to upset a few people – just ask Emma Rice. So when it was announced that Sara Pascoe, stand-up comedian and veteran of any number of television comedy shows such as Mock the Week, Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, Taskmaster, QI, Have I Got News for You and many more, was going to do a comic adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that was “playful, truthful and occasionally disrespectful”, you could almost hear the collective disapproving intakes of breath from Jane Austen aficionados around the country. That it was going to open at almost exactly the same time that the new £10 note with Austen’s portrait on the back was put into circulation was probably just rubbing salt into the wounds.
But, as Pascoe has pointed out, the comedy is already there; it’s just been pushed into the background – along with the harsh realities of many women’s lives in early 19th-century England also to be found in the novel – by too many earnest ‘costume drama’ adaptations and a fixation on love, romance and Colin Firth in a wet shirt. Although it has to be said that not all of that has been left out of this version.
As both a piece of theatre and an attempt to put a different slant on the Pride and Prejudice that seems to exist in the consciousness of the nation, it’s certainly not subtle but that’s mostly okay because it’s working against a lot of history – according to Director Susannah Tresilian’s programme notes, every previous stage and screen adaptation (bar a stage play in 1935) has been written by men. So, while the story (mostly) follows the traditional path, it’s littered with scenes set in the modern day (the cast in rehearsal, schoolgirls studying the book for the first time, editors cutting a screen version) and songs (written by Emmy the Great) to put the whole thing in context and help us see things through the women’s eyes. The song in which the Bennett sisters unite to plead with us not to judge them for being obsessed with finding a husband is particularly poignant.
If that makes the whole thing sound a bit worthy, then don’t worry, because Sara Pascoe’s script is packed with good jokes (as it should be), and the performance shows every sign of having experienced a fruitful and enjoyable rehearsal period. If there are any Austen aficionados in the audience, no one seems to be taking umbrage (and they’re probably getting more of the jokes, as well).
It’s been well cast, with nearly everyone taking on multiple roles. Kerry Peers (as Mrs Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, among others) tackles everything she’s been given to do with unrestrained gusto; Rachel Partington –impressing in her first professional role – gives us a wonderfully surreal and batty Mary Bennett, complete with envelope obsession, while Matthew Romain’s Mr Collins manages to be funny, upbeat, obnoxiously arrogant and ignorantly offensive all at the same time (none of the men – with the possible exception of Mr Bennett – really come out of this very well). Alice Haig’s Kitty and Olivia Onyehara’s Miss Bingley are also very enjoyable performances. Bethan Mary-James, meanwhile, is an endearing and sympathetic Elizabeth and holds the whole thing together in a role that lacks the comedic extravagances most of the rest of the cast enjoy.
So, it’s political, it’s pointed, it’s well acted and it’s very funny.
Not that it’s perfect. There are too many modern sections – the rehearsals and the school scenes work nicely, but the tv studio and, especially, the Ted talk seem unnecessary (although both still contain some good lines), the latter shunning humor and irony for what it is: a lecture. There comes a point where points are being hammered home one or two times too many. And while the songs mostly add to the show, the final number feels somewhat forced – although, to be fair, it does contain the funniest line (one about childbirth) of the whole night.
Nottingham Playhouse welcomed Adam Penford as its new Artistic Director as Pride and Prejudice was opening and, while he may not be able to take any credit for this success, it’s still a positive start to his tenure at a theatre where quality has been at best inconsistent in recent times.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Contributed