Book: Jane Austen
Stage Adaptation: Simon Reade
Director: Deborah Bruce
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Dashing young men and their lady loves are a feature of Jane Austen’s novels – Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy from the TV mini-series of Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, set in the Regency era in which she lived, is still remembered by many. Simon Reade’s adaptation of Austen’s book for the stage is of necessity a shortened version but manages nevertheless to keep to the style and tone of the original.
The story revolves around the country squire Mr Bennett, his wife and five unmarried daughters and the quest of the estimable, although at times foolish, Mrs Bennett to get all five of those daughters married – preferably to men with large fortunes. Not an easy task in the judgemental society of the early nineteenth century. The focus is on the two elder daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, particularly the former’s problematic liaison with Darcy, and her determination to marry for love and not financial gain.
Reade’s take is a commentary on the manners and mores of the times, with more than a sprinkling of comedy added to the mix While adhering to Austen’s own iconic style. Full credit to Reade for this and hardly surprising that, despite his efforts, the curtailment necessary in mounting a stage production of a novel interwoven with so much results in a degree of loss. A huge help is Max Jones’ atmospheric set which incorporates a revolving stage with decorative wrought iron gates simulating those in Regent’s Park where the production opened in 2013 and succeeds in moving smoothly between differing scenarios. A backdrop of trees changes colour with the seasons.
The snap and crackle of the original, which makes Austen so wonderfully readable and entertaining even when she is pointing a moral, fails to surface at times, particularly in Act I. However, the spark is still there in an appreciable amount of the dialogue – noticeably so in the wit of Mrs Bennett; under the direction of Deborah Bruce, emphasised and played to the hilt with flair and evident relish by Felicity Montagu. Alongside her, veteran actor Matthew Kelly is a fond paterfamilias struggling to cope with an all-female household which constantly give him stress.
The pivotal courtship of Elizabeth Bennett and the aristocratic and wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy is played out by Tafline Steel and Benjamin Dilloway respectively. Steel copes well with the subtle changes which the role demands but is better as the undoubtedly smitten and more girlish Elizabeth in Act II. Dilloway’s Darcy goes overboard as the stiff-necked aristo which is fair enough but fails to unbend sufficiently as the ardent lover, despite sweeping his girl of her feet in the penultimate scene. Steven Meo has the clergyman Mr Collins down to a T, and Mari Izzard’s Lydia Bennett is appropriately skittish and scatter-brained. A clutch of young actresses making their professional debut include Hollie Edwin as a delightful and down to earth Jane Bennett, while Kirsty Rider, in the less easy to define role of Caroline Bingley, gives a neat portrayal.
Runs until Saturday 25 February | Image: Johan Persson