Writer: Jane Austen
Adaptor: Isobel McArthur
Director: Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a renowned fictional romance is destined for interpretation and adaptation. And the work of Jane Austen has surely seen that, with her six complete novels being traditionally and not so traditionally translated to both stage and screen since they were published hundreds of years ago. Pride and Prejudice by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen) is one of the latest to grace theatres across the country, having debuted with huge success in Glasgow in 2017.
It still tells the story of the Bennet sisters and their search for love, but it’s certainly done with a twist – told from the perspective of five servants. If you’re studying Austen, don’t use this as your SparkNotes. This version has more expletives than you may remember in Austen’s writing, it places women front and centre and it has karaoke interspersed throughout – not sure Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain featured at the moment Elizabeth and Darcey met for the first time, but it is definitely apt. It highlights the key moments of the story, plucks out parts you hadn’t even considered to add additional humour and well and truly throws Austen into the 21st century.
It does help if you have read the novel, as some of the farcical and more reflective moments are comedically heightened if you are a fan of, or at least know, the original story. But enjoyment can still be had if you aren’t familiar with the book.
The cast are exceptionally talented, bringing to life the story we know and the story we don’t know (shout out to sister Mary who really does become the star of this show!) with comedic ease. The cast – Dannie Harris, Leah Jamieson, Emmy Stonelake, Megan Louise Wilson and Ruth Brotherton — all play multiple roles, switching between each with very simple yet effective costume changes and characterisations. Each character becomes an exaggerated version of their original self, Mrs Bennett’s obsession with her daughter’s love lives and big personality somehow becoming even more ridiculous, Mr Collins’ banal nature becoming even more boring and protagonist Elizabeth’s strong-willed determination coming through with Glaswegian grit.
It is incredible that this Olivier award winning production, which has come direct from the West End, has soared to success so quickly – in a similar fashion to Six, which started out at Edinburgh Festival and has since gone on to find international acclaim. And while you don’t want to see the show downsized, it has after all got through the Covid era still selling out auditoriums as big as the Lyric Theatre in The Lowry, it would suit a more intimate environment. There are moments when the cast integrate with the audience pre-show, which would really work in a fringe venue but is lost in a bigger setting. Some of the choices of writer and director McArthur and Simon Harvey – the karaoke, the continuous party atmosphere and the breaking of the fourth wall, for example – also reiterate this, perhaps having an even stronger impact if in a smaller setting. Naturally with a production of this nature, there are a few flatter moments than others, when a critical part of the story has to quickly be shoehorned in to make way for the next humorous sketch, but the pros far outweigh the cons.
That said, it’s testament to Austen that a novel about Regency society still works today. It can be made fun of, sure, but there’s still a lot of topics covered that are still as relevant today as ever – as Carl Woodward says in the programme, it’s ‘a dramaturgical discussion of intergenerational differences’. And while you aren’t going to get a Colin Firth water scene in this particular adaptation (kind of the point – girl power all the way), you sure are going to get a whole lotta laughs.
Runs until Saturday 21 January.