UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED TO BE A HOOT
It had to happen: someone had to notice that in the comfortable upper-middle and aristocratic worlds of Jane Austen’s novel, nothing could happen without the servants: cleaning up, cooking, delivering emotional notes between country houses in the mud, refilling glasses. Yet they are rarely mentioned. So here, even before the start, five maids in white shifts bustle about, informing us with salty broad-spoken vigour in their various accents (Lizzie Bennett’s Newry brogue could cut granite) that it’s their turn. This time THEY will relate the love affairs and frustrations of the Bennett, Bingley and Darcy families.
Assisted by lightning costume adjustments and a scornful shrug at the superficial matter of gender, they do the lot, from a sternly stiff Darcy to desperate Mary interpreted as an explosion of pink ruffles and affronted specs. And, Georgian repression being what it was, they kindly explain that it will sometimes be necessary to release feelings in song. Anything from The Shirelles to Carly Simon and – in a moment of wicked joy – there’s a blast of Lady In Red. Because, obviously, the immensely scarlet-ruffled Lady Catherine de Burgh had a nephew, Chris de Burgh…
And if we had never before imagined Elizabeth Bennett swigging from the bottle or having a fag with Mr Wickham out by the wheeliebins (the “AUST-BIN”, neatly marked), well, that is simply a failure of our imagination. Because the point, being made with every kind of merriment, is that Austen’s characters may have lived in another society but are, in their yearnings and frustrations and tempers and subterfuges and misunderstandings, exactly like us. And that had it been available, they might well have assuaged the pangs of lost love by eating Frosties straight from the packet.
This magnificent Glasgow-born romp by a group of five women may present itself as an impertinent lark, Jane Austen irreverently reworked in terms of karaoke and caricature, but actually it is a wiser and more skilful take on the story than most of the film and TV versions. It also has a grand pedigree in the world of innovative, clever but highly accessible theatre. The writer, performer and co-director Isobel McArthur, alongside the well-hefted troupe of Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler, were noticed and championed in Scotland by David Greig, in Bristol by Tom Morris and now in the West End by the producer David Pugh. This is a polished version, elegantly set under a chandelier and a vast sweeping staircase whose underside is made of books, but it retains the cheeky pub-theatre sense which sends audiences into helpless barking laughter and even (when poor Darcy is turned down first time) into more than one sad pitying “Aawwww!” .
It is also remarkably faithful to the original text, for all the servants’ larking and wandering in and out to make points with random musical instruments. We have small details like Mrs Bennett’s stratagem to get Jane a bed at Netherfield by sending her by horse (a lifesize model one, even) and the intricate conversation about accomplishments which first gets Darcy interested in Elizabeth’s mind. Nor had I ever noticed the likelihood that Charlotte Lucas would deeply prefer a romantic relationship with her friend, who sadly never notices. And I am entirely convinced by the probability that Lydia would borrow a long-barrelled pistol off one of her militia flirts to “have a go”, and bring down the chandelier. And when they do diverge most startlingly from the text it is only to affirm, for us in 2021, its essential truths. When Lizzie at last bursts out to Darcy “I’m sorry I told everyone you were a twat!”she may be paraphrasing, but the truth is there.
It’s very funny, a tribute both to Jane Austen and to the way that British theatre can, at the dog-end of a pandemic, fill a playhouse with something fresh, unexpected, and joyful.
Box office. Criterion-theatre.co.uk To 13 Feb