Pride and Prejudice (*sort of) – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Clare Jenkins, November 2022
Has Fitzwilliam Darcy ever before been called a “mard-arse”? Has Charles Bingley ever been so gormlessly Hooray Henry? And have we ever thought of Mrs Bennet [sic] – even in her Alison Steadman days – as a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, soldier-fancying harpy?
Probably not. But after seeing this musical, almost music-hall, version of Jane Austen’s classic, it could be hard to see them in an elegant and genteel light again. This is a comedy of manners all right – but they’re bad manners.
Isobel McArthur’s mischievously revisionist script captures the essence of the original while taking massive liberties with it. To quote Morecambe and Wise – whose quick-fire, wise-cracking humour it sometimes resembles – it plays all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
First performed at Glasgow’s Tron theatre, it opens with the five-strong female cast, in white shift dresses, bovver boots and yellow rubber gloves, dusting round the glorious Lyceum. They’re the below-stairs mob, servants to the gentry, knowing their masters’ and mistresses’ every foible and a bit fed up with never being noticed. Within minutes, though, they’ve delved into the dressing-up box onstage and emerged as the characters from the novel. McArthur herself – as well as co-directing with Simon Harvey – doubles fabulously as the ever-complaining, chocolate-guzzling matriarch Mrs Bennet and the anti-hero Darcy. As the former, she swears at her five daughters (including the absent Kitty) like one of the troopers whose military uniforms she so admires. “Being a f***ing smartarse is unladylike,” she snaps at Elizabeth. As Darcy, she marches broodily round the stage with a perpetually superior air, one eyebrow permanently raised in disdain. “Know who I can’t stand?” he says at the dance where he first sees Elizabeth. “People.”
Leah Jamieson’s Elizabeth is a long way from Jennifer Ehle’s pretty, coyly knowing interpretation in the 1995 BBC TV adaptation (there’s a knowing reference to Colin Firth’s wet shirt). Here, she’s streetwise, sarcastic, a tad shrill, responding to Darcy’s disapproval by picking up the ever-available microphone to sing Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ at him.
Her sister Jane, meanwhile (Christina Gordon, duetting as the cad George Wickham and the monstrous Lady Catherine De Bourgh – cue, inevitably, Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’), falls instantly for Darcy’s rah-rah friend Bingley, played with award-winning brio and adolescent gaucheness by Hannah Jarrett-Scott. Like the others, Jarrett-Scott is nearly always on stage, dashing off only to throw another costume over her shift and reappear as a completely different personality – Bingley’s snobbish sister Caroline one minute, Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas the next.
By presenting Charlotte as being in love with the oblivious Elizabeth, there’s sadness and desperation here, too – thwarted, she marries Mr Collins, the appalling vicar and heir to the Bennet estate. Played by Tori Burgess (doubling as a panto dame-style middle sister Mary), we first see him as he emerges from the household toilet, wringing his wet hands. Which kind of says it all.
The hard-working fivesome also provide the live music – accordion, guitar, trumpet, harp and piano – as well as singing along karaoke-style to a range of MOR hits: The Partridge Family’s ‘I Think I Love You’ (Darcy to Lizzie), Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ (when Wickham first appears), Candi Staton’s ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. And finally – a great Sheffield touch, and very not MOR – Pulp’s ‘Something Changed’.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s pared-down Regency set is as simple yet effective as the props: a dominating book-lined staircase, a wheeled-on horse, a Japanese vase (good for being sick into). In a surprisingly effective idea, Mr Bennet is played by a wing-back armchair and a propped-up newspaper.
Austen’s critique of women’s role in society is underlined throughout. Despite all their feistiness and energy, the women are dependent on men and marriage to give them any hope of a role in society – bring on Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero. And upper-class power and snobbery is still rife today. But the political and feminist messages are delivered, as the whole show is, with vigour, agility and great comic timing, not to mention a satisfying array of northern and Scottish accents. (“How can you enjoy Christmas in London?” Mrs B asks pointedly).
At times the often bawdy, Wife of Bath-style humour is just plain silly, with the kind of weak visual and verbal jokes that make you groan, and there’s more than a mite too much of the F word. But there’s a conspiratorial joyfulness – lots of addressing the audience directly – that could win over even the most Darcy-esque heart. Sometimes, daft jokes about Jane Aust-Bins, Wagon Wheels, Scotch eggs and pineapple hedgehogs are what the world needs.
Pride and Prejudice (*sort of) is at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday November 26th, then on tour including to Salford and Newcastle