Pride and Prejudice (sort of)
***** (5 stars)
Playwright Isobel McArthur had never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice before director Paul Brotherston asked her to turn it into a play for his Glasgow theatre company Blood of the Young. First seen at the Tron in Glasgow last year, the show has transitioned to the big stage and has rightly been receiving standing ovations every night.
The basic plot line is simple: Mr and Mrs Bennett have five daughters and little money, while the house in which they live will pass to a distant male relative when Mr Bennett dies. In an age when women had no rights to property or money – these would belong to her father and then, if she married, to her husband – and when the concept of earning a living was unthinkable, the girls would have to find husbands or eke out a miserable existence as impoverished spinsters. No wonder Mrs B can think of nothing but finding suitably wealthy husbands as quickly as possible while Mr B retreats to his library and immerses himself in his books.
Any young man who comes into the neighbourhood is instantly a target. In fairly quick succession Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, Mr Collins and Mr Wickham appear on the scene, and Mrs B sees them all as prospective husbands for her daughters. The plot takes many twists and turns, and the two central characters – Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy – have to learn to overcome both pride and prejudice before they can reach their happy ending.
There have been many film and tv adaptations of this novel – I think fondly of the BBC serialisation with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul, but those younger than I more probably swooned over Colin Firth’s dip in the lake. The Bollywood Bride and Prejudice is a firm favourite of mine, as is Yorkshire TV’s four-part series Lost in Austen in which 21st-century Amanda Price of Hammersmith swaps places with Elisabeth Bennett and finds herself desperately trying to keep the plot moving along the right lines, with increasingly hilarious results.
Tonight’s show took the basic plot line but chose to look at it from the perspective of the servants who play small but vital parts in all the households in which the action of Pride and Prejudice takes place. Anne, Maisie, Clara, Tillie, Flo and Effie give their below-stairs take on the situation while at the same time playing the major ‘upstairs’ characters, with all the complex choreography and lightning-swift changes of manner, voice, accent and gender that this involves. There are some fabulous moments when two characters played by the same actor are in conversation with each other, and an utterly brilliant solution to the problem that Mr Bennett’s presence on stage with his wife and five daughters would require a seventh actor…
Words fail me when I try to describe how talented these six actors are. They sing a superbly-chosen succession of musical numbers, they dance, they play a seemingly limitless number of musical instruments including trumpet and harp. They constantly change not only costume and character but also gender as they weave in and out of the different households, completely ignoring the fourth wall as they invite us into the riot and mayhem of the Bennett household.
Some at least of the audience certainly knew their Austen, and greeted characters and situations with howls of delighted laughter or gasps of anticipation. The family dynamic, with everyone picking on Mary, rang very true, and I loved Charlotte Lucas’ never-to-be-acknowledged quiet passion for her best friend, Lizzie. Meghan Tyler was magnificently mercurial as the strong-willed and unconventional Elizabeth, while Christina Gordon was distractedly in love and quietly heartbroken as her older sister Jane and a loathsomely self-congratulatory Lady Catherine de Burgh. Felixe Forde did a brilliant job of playing Kitty and two of the girls’ suitors – the loathsome Mr Collins and the charmingly amoral Wickham. Tori Burgess went one better by playing both the irrepressibly boy-mad Lydia and everyone’s target Mary [who must at all costs not be allowed to sing – I was so glad that she got to shine in the spotlight and close the show.] Hannah Jarrett-Scott was a quiet, lovelorn Charlotte Lucas and an impossibly okay-yah Caroline Bingley while also doing some nifty costume changes as Caroline’s brother Charles. Not content with writing a cracking play, Isobel McArthur got to play desperately-scheming, rhinoceros-hided Mrs Bennett and, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, start by despising and then slowly fall under the spell of her least favourite daughter, Elizabeth. And all the time, the servants wove in and out of the action, nudging here, prompting there, delivering the essential letters, announcing meals – and observing and commenting on everything that happened in front of them.
There was a horse, a glitterball, torrential rain, lots of alcohol and the odd cigarette. There was a delightfully inventive country walk, a Rubik’s cube and a glorious moment in the portrait gallery at Pemberley. There were moments of pure joy, of perfect theatre, of pants-wetting laughter: the six cast members had a ball throughout, and we had the pleasure and privilege of being invited into their world. If you don’t know the Austen original, you’re in for a treat which I hope will entice you to read the novel: if you do, you are in for an evening of sheer delight which you will remember fondly for a very long time.
Pride and Prejudice (sort of), Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 15 Feb, For tickets go to: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/pride-and-prejudice-sort-of