Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) – Review – Leeds Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, February 2020
OK, you’ve been there, seen it and got the t-shirt for at least one adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. I promise, this one’s entirely different. It’s an all-female Pride and Prejudice with all frocks flaring…. a highly affectionate and boldly irreverent 21st century take on the original.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s crisp set is neatly suggestive of the Regency era, with clean lines and all the essentials for a Jane Austen story: chandeliers; a drawing room with piano, staircase and landing, with a reversible screen and curtains (for quick costume changes). Hinting at the irreverence to come, the model bust on the landing is adorned by a top hat.
Tron Theatre Company and Blood of the Young’s production has been touring for months but seems sparklingly fresh. It’s such a homogeneous production that I couldn’t distinguish the input of writer, Isobel McArthur and director, Paul Brotherston, from the cast’s in this rich theatrical feast. And then I realised, Isobel McArthur is also one of the cast. What a talent!
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is witty, imaginative and exhilarating, with breath-takingly skilled performances by six assured women who are immensely disciplined but make everything they do look easy and spontaneous: they shift the scenery, dress each other, play instruments (including accordion and harp), sing and dance to great effect, communicate with the audience brilliantly – and play all the characters. There’s one exception: the role of Mr Bennet is taken by an armchair.
The show begins with the servants, some of whom enter through the audience, Marigold gloves accessorising their Regency shifts and stout boots. They greet Leeds’ audience enthusiastically and introduce us to the story of the six Bennet girls. Leeds Playhouse’s excellent sign language interpreter, onstage throughout, wears the basic costume, too, and is almost an additional character (she’s given centre stage for the final bow – and deserves it!).
We bowl along at pace, particularly in the first half, with a medley of well-chosen pop songs, heartily sung and played, to pepper the dialogue. The maids – when they’re not serving ‘upstairs’, commentating or playing their main roles – are an all-singing, all-dancing backing group. Austen’s basic story is told faithfully: It’s not far-fetched, I hope, to believe that she’d approve of this production and its alterations to language and characterisation: it’s all in a good cause. Every quip is played to the hilt, and the more tender moments are given time to play out. There are occasional lapses, but so few as to be glossed over here.
“Weird and wonderful”
The servants not only show us that ‘you can’t have a whirlwind romance without clean bedding’ but also provide a knowing narration, complete with winks and asides. It’s a device which gives us, like Jane Austen’s readers, a shrewd understanding of her sub-text, so essential to this comedy of manners; and we’re never in doubt of the truth that Regency ladies (of a certain class), lacking possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good husband.
This is emphasised by the portrayal of Charlotte Lucas as a lesbian: she marries the smarmy Mr Collins for financial security while deeply in love with Elizabeth Bennet. Hannah Jarrett-Scott is truly poignant as Charlotte, singing heartrendingly of her love. Contrastingly, she’s hilarious strutting like a rooster as Bingley – and playing his haughty sister, too.
In more weird and wonderful doubling of roles, Jane Bennet and Lady Catherine de Burgh are both played effectively and with fine definition by Christina Gordon. I’ll remember for a long time Jane’s fateful ride, on a life-size replica of a horse, to the Bingley household, accompanied by live coconut shells sound-effect; the famous storm is brewed up by two of the actors spraying mist and squirting water at her.
Felix Forde, in her professional debut, may be less assured than the more experienced actors, but she’s suitably adolescent as Kitty Bennet, and comically irritating as both the debauched Wickham and self-satisfied Mr Collins.
Mary, socially inept and physically awkward, is played with cringeworthy credibility by Tori Burgess who finds a separate character for each of the servants she plays and, as a performer, has great appeal and infectious enthusiasm. Meghan Tyler is delightful as the mischievous and rebellious Elizabeth, who remarks of her beautiful sister, Jane, ‘She would look nice if we lacquered her in liquid sh*te’. Like the entire cast, she has a belter of a singing voice too.
Isobel McArthur, aka the playwright, has the taciturnity and brooding passion of Fitzwilliam Darcy to a tee; and she’s suitably exasperating for the audience, as well as her daughters, playing the scheming, mildly hysterical version Mrs Bennet who, in this production, speaks for the inevitably silent Mr Bennet.
There are occasional lulls at the end of the first half and early in the second, but overall, this is a tour de force, an exuberant display of dazzling talent.
‘It’s very rare I’d be happy to see the same play the next night, said my companion as we left the Courtyard Theatre, ‘But… ’ All hail this company – and all hail Jane Austen!