Writer: Isobel McArthur
Director: Paul Brotherston
It is a truth universally acknowledged that referencing the first line of Jane Austen’s perennial period drama is an easy but over-used way of hooking readers into an article about Pride and Prejudice. Isobel McArthur uses more creative means to make her version of the story interesting and original, ensuring that this is no staid corsets-and-carriages reheating of Austen, but a looser, reinvigorated retelling which entirely justifies the parenthetical clarification of its title.
McArthur’s premise is that the below-stairs maids and servants of regency dramas never get placed front and centre of their stories. Rather they lurk in the background, watching, and occasionally facilitating the interactions of the named characters. In this version, those domestic drudges step into the limelight to give us their unique perspective on the story.
Thus we have six actors playing all the parts, in a whirlwind panto-style version of what happened when Liz met Fitz, with quick change costumes, a karaoke soundtrack, and some decidedly 21st century expletives. It’s fast, funny, and full of theatricality. A panacea for the Austen purists this most definitely isn’t.
The more successful elements of McArthur’s script are those parts which reinvent Austen’s drama instead of merely recreating the story. Familiarity with the source material may reward audiences with knowing in-jokes and references, but the plot is so effectively relayed that a working knowledge of the original is entirely unnecessary.
A scene in the toilets at the Meryton ball, as both Elizabeth Bennett (Meghan Tyler) and Mr Darcy (McArthur) reflect on their first meeting to their respective friends, Charlotte Lucas (Hannah Jarrett-Scott) and Charles Bingley (also Jarrett-Scott), is both witty and makes creative use of the doubling among the cast. Later scenes less effortlessly combine exposition with stagecraft, and the production’s weaker moments in act two are those which stick more closely to Austen’s original.
The conceit of giving us the servants’ perspective could be utilised more consistently – aside from occasional interventions in the plot, this framing of the action through the eyes of subservient figures is forgotten at times, in danger of rendering the action a more laboured, borderline ‘am dram’ take on Austen. The quality of the performances broadly avoids the pitfalls of this approach, with some exquisite comic timing from Jarrett-Scott, Tyler’s languid vocals and expressive face, and Tori Burgess’s cartoonish physicality.
Interspersing the action with contemporary songs and music may seem like an overly easy way of suggesting the story’s modernity, but the cast also play with this convention by subverting expectations to enhance the action – a duet of It Takes Two in which Darcy refuses to sing his part, leaving Elizabeth singing only her half of the song, is one of the night’s standout moments, both musically and comically.
The whole production in undeniably slick and entertaining, and the cast manages to wring genuine emotion despite the broad caricatures portrayed. The comedy may be found a little too easily through references to the likes of Cinzano, Viennetta, and Ferrero Rocher, with a few smart running gags throughout (watch out for the Rubik’s cube), but this is unapologetically feel-good theatre, combining craft and imagination to endearing effect.
What is never lost is the clear love and affection that McArthur has for Austen’s writing, along with a strong sense of why this story of women in a world of men continues to resonate today. And it may even win over the naysayers and attract new readers to explore the original Pride and Prejudice. Sort of.
Runs until 15 February 2020 | Image: Contributed