Seeing Pride and Prejudice (*sort of) has been on my wishlist for a while. I was lucky enough to meet the writer, Isobel McArthur, at the Northern Stage season launch back in May, when I was impressed by her take on the material. I’d feared any comedy based on the book would be a bit of a French and Saunders type farce, which is all well and good but gets wearing after a few scenes, but McArthur’s approach sounded fresh and inventive, so I was pleased when I was able to secure a review ticket to see it this week.
I must admit my enthusiasm was dented when I found out the running time – 2 hrs 40 is long for a comedy, and very long by my “I really want to be at home on the sofa” standards – but I went in with an open mind and a full glass of wine, ready to give it a go. And, bloody hell, I’m glad I did, because I think I may have found my show of the year.
An all-female cast tells the story of Pride & Prejudice from the perspective of the servants – ever-present in Austen’s novels, but always on the outskirts, their identities a blur. The women all take on multiple roles, as well as singing and, in some cases, playing musical instruments, and do so with enormous aplomb: I can’t recall when I’ve seen a more likable cast.
McArthur herself is outstanding both as an earthy, if highly strung, Mrs Bennett and a simmering (and undeniably sexy) Darcy. Meghan Tyler’s Lizzie is a sweary, swaggering delight, while Christina Gordon helps Jane avoid the blandness she can fall prey to, and is a splendidly over the top Lady Catherine. Tori Burgess does double duty as both Lydia and Mary and is a lot of fun as both, and Hannah Jarrett-Scott is a standout as both Bingley and his sister, her Charlotte Lucas settling for the attentions of Felixe Forde’s teeth-gratingly obsequious Mr Collins in part because she can’t have the real object of her desire – an oblivious Lizzie (for all her modernity, Lizzie’s imagination only stretches so far). (Forde is also very good as George Wickham, transforming from his early smarmy charm to a helpless and beleaguered resignation as he realises he is trapped not just with his feckless wife but his over-bearing mother-in-law).
A riotous confection of song (there’s a lot of well-deployed karaoke), smart lines and deft physical comedy, there’s slick professionalism underpinning the chaos: Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s design is clever and elegant, as is Emily Jane Boyle’s choreography, and director Paul Brotherston never lets the pace flag – even at such a long running time, it didn’t feel a minute too long (I know, I know, I can’t believe I am saying that.)
The script takes an affectionate but also slyly knowing approach to the source material – acknowledging not just the books but their place in popular culture (there’s a delightful wet-shirt joke in there for the Firth fans). It also offers some smart repositioning, and not only by shifting the gaze to the servants. Here, Mr Bennett is no longer the benign if slightly ineffectual man of the house, to be pitied for being cruelly chained to a stupid woman, but in his literal absence (all we see of him is the back of his chair and his newspaper), he is the neglectful patriarch, whose inattention left his daughters vulnerable – for all his wife may be annoying, she is forced into her slightly venal pragmatism by society and circumstance.
Better yet, while the show is literally laugh out loud hilarious, it recognises that the best comedy has to have proper stakes involved, and doesn’t shy away from giving the characters the emotional depth that has made them so beloved. Darcy and Elizabeth have real chemistry, and their final reunion is genuinely tender and romantic; Charlotte Lucas’ pining over Elizabeth, and her resignation to life with her unbearable spouse, is properly sad.
The result is a joyful romp of a show that plays fast and loose with its source material but manages to stay true to it in spirit. I was there with a group of friends – one of whom is an Austen newbie – and we all came out giddy and grinning and wondering if we could squeeze in a repeat viewing before the end of its run. So, do yourself a favour and head over to Northern Stage: you’ll be in for an evening of delights. (You can book tickets here).