I can’t believe that it is over three years since I saw this show at Leeds Playhouse, how time flies when you are in a pandemic. In the interim it has undergone a total cast change and, after touring the country’s theatres, it has enjoyed a successful run in the West End. This production has become a lot slicker, naturally, but has still kept its sense of mischief.

I would first like to say that it is great to see that a show which is based on a classic novel makes this perfectly clear by adding a caveat to the title, and saying that it is by Isobel McArthur after Jane Austen. I am getting a little weary of plays purporting to be by the original author even after undergoing fundamental changes. The aforementioned Isobel McArthur was in the cast of the 2020 version but is co-director in this one with Simon Harvey.

As you would expect, the show follows the theme of the Jane Austen novel but the twist is that it is told from the point of view of the five servants in the Bennet household, all of whom are female. These are the only cast members so, in order to tell the tale, they each take on multiple roles, both male and female. The line-up comprises; Lucy Gray, Dannie Harris, Leah Jameson, Emmy Stonelake and Megan Louise Wilson. There are two others credited in the programme, Ruth Brotherton and Laura Soper but I am not sure whether the members are used in rotation or if the last two are understudies.

Emmy Stonelake, Dannie Harris, Leah Jamison, Megan Louise Wilson and Lucy Gray in party mood

The gist of the story is that Mrs Bennet has five daughters, all spinsters. The law of the land in 1813 was that only male heirs could inherit from their father so, should he pass away then the house and all of their possessions would be forfeited. The only solution was to find a husband for one or more of them who would then become the beneficiary of the estate. Mrs Bennet, not wishing to become destitute, makes it her life’s work to move matters on, matrimonially speaking. The next problem is that any suitor must be trusted to look after all of the family when he cops the goodies, rather than keep them all to himself. So the fun and games begin – fun being the operative word.

Leah Jameson, Dannie Harris, Lucy Gray, Megan Louise Wilson and Emmy Stonelake in housemaid garb.

The play didn’t begin as much as evolve, there being no curtain as we entered the beautiful auditorium at Leeds Grand, the stage was in full view, the set being the Bennets’ drawing room. Here’s a bit of trivia for you, which I am sure will be of special interest to my American readers. Drawing room does not mean a room which was used for artistic purposes, it is a contraction of withdrawing room, being the place to which the ladies would ‘withdraw’ after dinner whilst the gentlemen remained in the dining room to partake of their brandy and cigars whilst engaging in man talk. You’re welcome.

We took our seats whilst the housemaids were in the middle of cleaning and dusting the theatre itself, one lady behind me asked her companion if it had already started. Gradually they all worked their way to the stage and the house lights went down.

The format of the piece was unlike any other, with passages addressed straight at the audience, some of which required replies, comedy and music. The latter was performed either to a karaoke machine or the excellent musicianship of the cast members. I must say I always fear for the wellbeing of a female accordion player!

Leah Jameson, Lucy Gray and Emmy Stonelake admiring a ‘portrait’ of Mr Darcy – Dannie Harris

The comedy had all bases covered; wit, visual, peripheral action and exaggerated accents. There was also an element of farce, a genre I really can’t find funny, but this was kept just on the right side of silliness, in fact, one piece involving the use of a Pringles tube I found to be hilarious. Aspects of the props also added to the humour, especially an armchair, allegedly occupied by Mr Bennet, a horse and a skip, which displayed a dig at Sir Walter Scott. There was also a nod to the television adaptation with one of the characters saying to Dannie Harris, who also played Mr Darcy that she didn’t look very wet to say that she had just emerged from the lake!

Megan Louise Wilson, Lucy Gray, Dannie Harris, Leah Jameson and Emmy Stonelake

The acting was absolutely brilliant with the comic timing split-second perfect, along with some amazing costume changes. The singing was up to karaoke standard but that was all that was required.

At the interval I was thinking that the joke was wearing a bit thin but it turned out to be a game of two halves, the second of which had me reeled in again. I must mention some of the creatives; Jos Huber for Comedy Staging, Designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, Choreographer Emily Jane Boyle and Lighting Designer Colin Grenfell. All of their skills were tested to the max and passed with flying colours.

The pace of the action was frenetic at times, you might say it was Austen Allegro – but of course you wouldn’t. Although set in the early 19th century there were many current references and it has to be said that the language was not that which would have been used by well bred young ladies of the time. These juxtapositions made the piece all the funnier, once the initial shock had been absorbed by the unsuspecting audience, which initially had manifested itself in the odd gasp!

On the subject of the audience, I can’t remember when I have heard so much laughter and for such a sustained period of time, to be honest I can’t remember having laughed out loud as much either. So, if you want to see comedy performed at its best I highly recommend it.

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday, 29th April.

For more details and to make a booking please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/pride-and-prejudice-sort-of-2023/

Photographs by Mihaela Bodlovic

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