'Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)' review - irreverent Austen adaptation makes for a fun night out
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there will always be yet another Jane Austen adaptation in our future. Entering a crowded field, as jam-packed as a society ball, is Isobel McArthur’s karaoke-fuelled version of Pride and Prejudice, which premiered in Glasgow in 2018 and then toured before coming to London. Its irreverent merriness is definitely a welcome addition to the West End, and makes for a fun night out, but I’m less convinced that it has a unique take on a very familiar tale.
The intriguing premise is that it’s the unseen, underappreciated servants who are telling Austen’s story, donning their employers’ gowns and frock coats to transform into them (the all-female cast of five, several making their West End debuts, multi-role with aplomb). But that idea never really cuts through: there’s no revolutionary commentary on class, no sense of the outsider shaping our perception. This isn’t a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the Regency romcom. And while there’s the odd pointed comment or eye roll at male stupidity, nor is it as overtly feminist as other revisionist offerings like Six.
But, rather like that herstory hit, it does feature the inspired use of pop songs to allow this emotionally repressed lot to express themselves. So, clutching handheld microphones, Jane croons “At Last” while on her way to Netherfield, Elizabeth taunts Mr Darcy with “You’re So Vain,” Jane and Bingley wonder “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and the Bennet women are “Holding Out for a Hero.” There’s also a perfectly groan-worthy Chris de Burgh gag.
Otherwise this is a pretty faithful staging of the novel (with the long run time to match), albeit one with more forthright and fruity language – Mrs Bennet calls Elizabeth “a fucking smartarse” – and contemporary touches like the sisters stomping around in Doc Martens or drinking Irn-Bru. McArthur’s script is part fanfiction, filling in scenes and conversations around Austen’s existing text, and part guide, explaining historical elements like women not being allowed to inherit property.
It’s admirably accessible, and McArthur and Simon Harvey’s energetic production is very engaging, but it coarsens Austen’s delicate satire. It’s much funnier to have Elizabeth struggle to reject Mr Collins’s proposal within the bounds of propriety than to simply have her roar at him to “Fuck off.” Without the same sense of social restraint and strict class distinctions, the stakes are lost. And, matching that heightened tone, Meghan Tyler pushes Elizabeth – who Austen rightly called “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” – into obnoxious territory, her sarcasm sneery and her delivery screeching.
The bold approach works better with the supporting characters. McArthur is terrific as a growling Mr Darcy and histrionic Mrs Bennet, the latter expressing the urgency of her task – this marriage market is a fight for survival – within a recognisable comic portrait. During a maudlin Christmas, she weeps drunkenly into a box of Quality Streets. Christina Gordon supplies a yearning Jane, preening Wickham and formidable Lady Catherine, and Tori Burgess a smutty Lydia, tormented Mary and oafish Mr Collins.
But the scene-stealer is Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who best captures Austen’s sardonic characterisation while adding an extra layer of dazzling physical comedy. Her dim toff Bingley first appears with his hand stuck in a Pringles tube, and her feather-headdress-wielding Caroline goes to increasingly hilarious extremes to catch Mr Darcy’s attention.
There’s also an interesting revelation in Jarrett-Scott’s Charlotte Lucas, here evidently in love with Elizabeth – which puts a new spin on her settling for marriage with Mr Collins. I would have welcomed more of those audacious additions, as well as further inventive flourishes like representing Mr Bennet with just an armchair and newspaper or having Darcy’s portrait stalk Elizabeth, plus more songs in general. The show really flies when it embraces that music hall risk-taking spirit and joyful freshness.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s effective set features a big, winding staircase stuffed with books and a dangling chandelier (yes, there’s a Phantom joke), juxtaposed amusingly with the karaoke machine, and Colin Grenfell’s crisp lighting cues punctuate the humour. Everything scales up nicely to fit the Criterion. Now, it’s up to audiences to decide whether they need more Austen in their lives and if this production earns her triumphant happy ending.
Photo credit: Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Tori Burgess, Meghan Tyler (Photo by Matt Crockett)