Writer: Isobel McArthur
Directors: Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey
Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) retells Jane Austen’s novel with karaoke and a cast of five women. Will this mash-up of Regency costumes and modern manners work? It does. This show is an absolute triumph: inventive, fast-paced and wildly funny. And while it follows Austen’s plot faithfully, it is delightfully sassy thanks to Isobel McArthur’s zingy dialogue.
Austen rarely shows us the servants upon whom the economy of these well-to-do households depends. Jo Baker in her novel Longbourn took the imaginative route of retelling the story through the eyes of the Bennets’ long-suffering domestic staff. In Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) this is just the starting point. Ordered to make a bedroom ready for an unexpected guest, a servant cheerful hoists a linen basket, singing “I’m once, twice, three times a laundress”. But the brilliant twist in this show is in the almost-magical transformations. At one moment a servant is near invisible in a modest white slip. The next, a coloured frock or a gentleman’s coat, and she turns into, say, Lizzie Bennet or Mr Darcy. That this succeeds consistently is thanks to pacy ensemble work and tight direction (McArthur and co-director Simon Harvey).
But there’s a further layer of comedy. All the actors play two or more parts, showcasing their spectacular dramatic and musical talents. Meghan Tyler gives a superbly feisty performance as Lizzie. Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s keen sense of physical comedy gives new life to both Charles Bingley and his sister, Caroline. Bingley was always amiably stupid, but showing him getting his hand stuck in a tube of Pringles is genius. In contrast, Jarrett-Scott’s Charlotte Lucas is a dignified figure, harbouring a secret love. Tori Burgess’s loathsome Mr Collins – first seen emerging from the downstairs loo – only adds to the poignancy of Charlotte’s near-tragic fate. Christina Gordon is variously sweet as Jane, slimy as Wickham and outrageous as Lady Catherine. Meanwhile Burgess bursts out in a lemon-yellow frock as an irrepressible Lydia. Her long-suffering Mary Bennet is given a new lease of life in pink frills, and Austen’s joke about her awful piano-playing (Mr Bennet’s “You have delighted us long enough”) is developed into a great running joke. And as for Mr Bennet himself – well, wait and see.
The success of any production of Pride and Prejudice depends on the power of the leading actors to convince us of the slow-burning attraction between Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy. And here, even though seconds before, McArthur as Mrs Bennet has been lying prostrate on the sofa, her transformation into Darcy is strangely convincing. Hysterics gives way to hauteur as Mr Darcy, with sultry steps, perambulates the stage, his eyes fixed on Lizzie. In the novel Austen has her reluctantly agreeing to dance with him. Here she is handed a microphone and made to sing. Her choice? Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. Perfect.
The show is packed with great gags. At Darcy’s Derbyshire mansion, Lizzie inspects his portrait. In a fabulous bit of stage business, servants hold up an empty picture frame, McArthur springing up behind it to pose as a smouldering Darcy. And brilliantly, when Darcy appears in person, the housekeeper is puzzled: “Why, Mr Darcy! You’re so – dry”.
Another fabulous joke is when Lady Catherine de Burgh claims Chris de Burgh is her nephew. To strains of “Never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight”, Lady Catherine, a Lady in Red, writhes in ecstasy. Elsewhere there is a comic horse. “Mount Willy!” cries Mrs Bennet gleefully. A glorious set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and dramatic lighting by Colin Grenfell give richness and variety to a thoroughly inventive show
Throughout McArthur pulls off the feat of hilariously updating the language. Lizzie describes being “lacquered in liquid shit”. Mrs Bennet, forever effing and blinding, reaches new heights in her exasperation: Kitty’s irritating page-turning becomes “rustlege” until she explodes: “Baby Jesus would be spinning in his grave!”
Runs until 17 April 2022