Saturday 20th July 2019 at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, York.
Austentatious is improv with a lovely and quirky twist (the clue is in the name). A quick-thinking cast of six take an audience-suggested title of a ‘lost’ or under-appreciated Austen novel and spend an hour and something bringing it into being.
Among a thoroughly entertaining cast there are a number of stand-outs. As the necessary unmarried woman, Ms. Amy Cooke-Hodgson lingers suitably somewhere between precocious intellectual and the sensitive, forlorn ‘different’ type. She’s joined by fussy friends (complete with behind the back sniping) played by Ms. Cariad Lloyd and Ms Charlotte Gittins, both of whom excel in their additional roles as various omnishambolic locals as much as in those primary roles. Lloyd’s take on the local repellent old woman complete with ‘leakage’ and her take on the terrible maid are particular comic highlights.
The womenfolk are joined by menfolk equally quick on their toes and blessed with strong funnybones. Mr Andrew Hunter Murray is the gentlemanly over-polite type who has the delicacy of speech to land a modern punchline with an Austen era delivery for maximum impact. Mr Graham Dickson plays the wounded love interest beautifully, going all in on the thwarted brooding gags. It is in Mr Joseph Morpurgo that the production finds its star though – his comic patter is as turbo-charged in pace as it is in loquaciousness. Such sesquipedalianism could win the verbosity championships and yet within the grand speeches lie many well planted modern references to have the whole audience laughing along.
I guess the ability to impress comes down to the quality of the title suggestion taken at each performance and in this case, the title The Austen Cinematic Universe (ACU) allowed the cast to play fast and loose as the title was so broad. My feeling was that the company are capable of much more than this selected route gave them scope for and aside from ‘cinematic buns’ and drama around a less than impressive play, there was little of note to suggest they were following the implications of the vague title, more that they had a general direction to follow and showed off their excellent improv skills regardless.
This company and this show tap into the very particular brand of comedy which manipulates all the pomp and style of bygone eras, inserting unexpected modern references to bring about appreciative laughs prompted most frequently by the often glorious incongruity. That subversion and gentle mockery of periods celebrating gentility above all else is something also achieved by the musical accompaniment of Alex Judd, Dylan Townley and Oliver Izod which channels the swelling tides of dramatic movie underscoring to heighten the faux delicacy or mock melodrama of a scene.
Austentatious is silly and fun but also skilfully well structured where it could easily become meandering. It also promises the unique entertainment of seeing actors surprise each other, allowing us to enjoy the constant thrilling danger of actors losing themselves to corpsing. This is comedy for the Austen fan and for the period drama spoof fan and if nothing else it’s interesting to see where random suggestions can take a band of great actors with an eye for the ridiculous.
Austentatious played the Grand Theatre and Opera House, York at part of the Great Yorkshire Fringe. It continues to entertain at various tour venues (including stints at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) until November 2019 and you can find information and tickets here.