I must own up to never having read Pride and Prejudice, nor have I seen any tv adaptations, so this was my initiation into the seminal work by Jane Austen. I have now decided to put matters right and hit Amazon with my plastic because I must admit that I didn’t expect a Victorian novel to be so amusing. OK, seriously, I realise that the book isn’t a laugh a minute but then neither is this stage adaptation, it’s a laugh a second!
The story is told by six servants in the house of the Bennet family who begin the play by performing their household duties both on stage and in the auditorium. There is a total of twenty-one characters in the play, or possibly twenty-two, or maybe even twenty-three, but just the six immensely talented female actors. Hannah Jarrett-Scott opened the proceedings by setting the scene and outlining the plot saying that Mrs Bennet has to get one of her daughters married or when Mr Bennet croaks his estate will pass out of the household to his next male heir and then will be left destitute. Such were the laws of testacy. The rest of the play was concerned with trying to get one of the siblings into matrimony with anyone who will have them, and put up with the mother.
It became pretty obvious from the outset that extreme liberties were about to be taken with the classic when a karaoke machine appeared and the cast burst into the Elvis Costello and the Attractions track Every Day I Write The Book – geddit?
Because of the multiple parts being played by each cast member there were many costume changes, some done off stage and some on the hoof, which added to the laugh count. I found that the diversity of the accents also helped by showing that the family was by no means aristocratic, just wealthy. They did morph into RP though when playing the true blue bloods.
When I watch comedy I tend to sit there and think, ‘Yeah, that was funny/humorous/passable/crap/sorry, did I miss something?’ Tonight, however, I found myself laughing out loud on a regular basis. The plot had a bit to do with it but it was the performances which were, without exception, utterly brilliant. The writing by Isobel McArthur, who also played Flo, Mrs Bennet and Mr Darcy, was whip-smart with some cracking one-liners, put-downs and just plain insults which had the the audience in uproar. That is not to take away from the writing of the narrative which came more to the fore in the second half when things became a little more involved and the comedy mixed with pathos. Every aspect was written superbly well.
You can have the best script in the world but unless the actors can interpret it it might as well go through the shredder. No such problem here.
Obviously the writer knew what she had in mind and switched effortlessly between the gobby Scottish drunk, Mrs Bennet and the gentleman Darcy, who hardly ever spoke except to be obnoxious to people he didn’t like and most of the time just looked smoulderingly at Elizabeth Bennett, as well as the audience.
Megham Tyler was Effie and the aforementioned Elizabeth Bennet who had a beautiful Northern Irish accent which veered from lilting to raucous depending on what was called for. She nailed both the comedy and the pathos and was the deserved lead.
I read on the fact sheet which we were given that Tori Burgess, as Anne, Mary Bennet, Lydia Bennet and Mr Gardiner, studied at Leeds University so I was disappointed to hear that the accent she had was from West of the Pennines (I am struggling not to say ‘the wrong side’ but I will restrain myself), however, when I looked her up her Twitter page says that she is a ‘Manc actor’, so that is alright then. She played the youngest sister who was also very clever but overlooked by the rest of the family. Each time the karaoke machine appeared she begged to be able to sing but the request was always refused, ironically because she was told that she was too good and men didn’t like that. Of course she got her chance at the end of the show, and didn’t disappoint.
Felixe Forde was Maisie, Kitty Bennet, George Wickham, Mr Collins and Mrs Gardiner. As Mr Collins, the clergyman, who proposed to Elizabeth Bennet in the morning, got put firmly in his place with a totally unequivocal refusal, and proposed to Charlotte Lucas the same lunchtime who accepted, she was perfect. The wide-brimmed black hat and oversized glasses summoned her inner Father Brown a treat. It was more a characature than a characterisation but that was no bad thing. She also portrayed the wayward George Wickham, a soldier, equally well but a little less OTT.
Christina Gordon was Clara, Jane Bennet and Lady Catherine de Burgh, who described herself as Chris’ cousin, giving the cast an excuse to sing Lady In Red, a song which I have no problem with being murdered. Guess what colour her dress, hat and sunglasses were. As Jane Bennet she was the other sister who was in line to save the family fortune by becoming the wife of Charles Bingley, a plan which was running smoothly until the second half when she too had a few scenes to play which pulled at the heart strings. Again, wonderful.
Finally, the last credited cast member, Hanna Jarrett-Scott as Tillie, Charlotte Lucas, Charles Bingley and Miss Bingley. What can I say? I have said how good the script was and how it depended on interpretation but I don’t think that the author could have hoped for someone like this to take her characters to such heights. She was down to earth as the family friend, Charlotte Lucas, and suitably puritanical and downtrodden after marrying Mr Collins but it was as Charles Bingley and his sister that she excelled. Both the Bingleys wore the same tartan but Charles as a jacket and Miss Bingley as a skirt. There was one scene where, as the latter, trying to make herself look sophisticated in front of Jane Bennet, whom she knew her brother wanted to marry, she had the audience in stitches. There is no way in the world that words could describe the performance, which is why people act out plays rather than just read them. The facial expressions, body language, and the way she delivered her lines were sublime.
In addition to the brilliant acting, all of the cast are accomplished musicians on everything from piano, trumpet, accordion, guitar and harp to a strange looking contraption which sounded like a football rattle.
Finally on to the twenty-second ‘character’, that of Mr Bennet. He didn’t have any lines as he was represented by a winged back armchair facing three-quarters away from the audience which had had a newspaper attached to the front to make it appear that there was someone reading it. On a couple of occasions the actors would speak a line to it and answer themselves.
Now, really finally, we have the twenty-third character who this time did exist. I am talking about the wonderful BSL signer. I have seen her sign plays before and marvelled at her skill but I doubt that even Hamlet could have put her abilities to the test as much as this did. The brilliant part about this was that she got so involved with the signing of the knockabout scenes that she was more animated than the actors, and, at the beginning of the second act which was set at a Christmas party, she even donned a paper hat. Quite rightly she was brought on to the stage at the end to join the cast in accepting the applause of the audience.
The direction by Paul Brotherston – how did he get in there – was superb with the action rehearsed to a tee. There were times when everyone was on stage at the same time and dashing around that it was almost like choreography. There were also a couple of instances in the second half, and I have no idea how they did it, when all the lights went out on stage, which became totally black, and a couple of seconds later went back on to reveal a new set of characters. It literally was split-second timing.
The set, costumes, lighting and sound people who unfortunately are not named on the fact sheet did a great job turning the set from stately home to disco and even, at one stage, bringing a horse on.
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not ‘get’ farce but thankfully this stayed on just the right side and had enough wit and nuance to lift it above the slapstick and silliness. If anything it was like an adult pantomime and there is nothing wrong with that.
Tickets are limited for the rest of the run so, if you are too late to get one yourself but you know a well-to-do man who has a spare, then I suggest you marry him.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) continues at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 29th February. Please click on the link below for details and tickets.
The tour continues at the following venues:-
10th-14th March The Playhouse, Oxford
17th-28th March NST City, Southampton
18th March- 4th April NST Campus, Southampton
7th-11th April Bristol Old Vic, Bristol
All photographs by Mihaela Bodlovic