Tuesday 25th February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse (Courtyard).
Not all takes on revered classics are created equal and the sad truth is that many fall short when it comes to revolutionising or reinvigorating the titans they optimistically take on. Onto that precarious theatre scene walks the writer of this piece… With an eyebrow raised mischievously at the Jane Austen purists and a welcome promise of rule-breaking and mayhem for the rest of us, Isobel McArthur offers a gutsy, song-filled reimagining in a league of its own, as told by the maids left by the wayside in Austen’s margins. It’s a rare delight to sit writing a review between intervals of spontaneous laughter but here I am, having re-lived all my favourite bits to reach a glowing conclusion. Settle in folks, this one’s a love-fest.
I laughed so much I cried while watching this; invariably this was the work of Hannah Jarrett-Scott and McArthur who take on the boldest of Austen’s creations. Jarrett-Scott is in truth really quite astonishing to watch, impressing tenfold as she dashes all guns blazing between starkly different characters. From the deeply sympathetic Charlotte to the lumbering bumbling Bingley and over to the comedy GOLD that is Caroline Bingley, she gives the kind of performance you can’t describe to anyone else without cracking up.
It’s a similar story with McArthur’s fabulous transformations. Mrs Bennet, mother of the burden that is so many unwed daughters, is a treasure of a character and what McArthur does is simply raise the stakes. By basking wholeheartedly in the merciless melodrama of this mother and adding a generous dose of surprising near/full expletives in a winning boom, she has us in stitches in no time.
With a swish of a quick change we meet McArthur’s Darcy – the first and only Darcy to convince me there are some saving graces to the character. What’s so impressive about this rendition is that it’s such a sharply drawn combination of a top notch comic caricature of the entitled male and a sincere take on Austen’s intense original, with those all important key scenes played beautifully straight. He’s brooding heartthrob Darcy but he’s also a gleeful mockery of the character and all he stands for. Brilliant stuff.
Ultimately though, this is an ensemble piece and a cast of six with talents as broad and as brazen as Mrs Bennet’s social climbing designs carry the production. Elizabeth Bennett (Meghan Tyler) gets an extraordinary make-over (and under) here as she characteristically takes no nonsense…only much more bluntly than Austen could ever venture. Tyler’s Elizabeth is still charming and funny, intelligent and thoroughly likeable but she gets incongruous freedoms that we can all enjoy being party to: sitting atop a piano like a rigger on break; swigging wine and inhaling the odd ciggie when times get rough; saying what she means in the most entertainingly exact terms. And like most other characters, Tyler’s Lizzie Bennet is also at intervals very tender, making this joint creation of writer and performer a cracking, audacious characterisation of one of our most beloved heroines.
Christina Gordon offers one of the most faithfully Austen characterisations in the shape of delicate, romantic Jane… though naturally she too gets her time in the limelight of modernisation as she drinks away disappointment and bawls into a mic in a brilliant moment of cathartic song (actually, it’s Gordon who gets the best musical set-ups, particularly in all her Etta James glory). And in her Lady Catherine de Burgh role Gordon takes an altogether different form and proves herself capable of both the Honey and the Trunchbull of the piece.
Those fantastic central performances are flanked by Tori Burgess and Felixe Forde. The hilarious Burgess flips brilliantly between the teen-rifically self-centred Lydia and the tragi-comic young Mary. With drab dresses and specs assisting, Burgess brings it home and leaves us helplessly chuckling away as poor Mary faces her many challenges. Forde in turn offers us a Kitty who bears the burden of an overzealous sister so very well, a smug George Wickham you’d quite like to see get his comeuppance in slow motion and a thoroughly insufferable Mr Collins, complete with a constant tick of blathering on.
Paul Brotherston’s direction is as impressive as the cast too. As far as pace and precision go, it’s a wonder to think the show runs as 2.45 with interval. This is a production which makes minutes of hours and showcases great creativity when it comes to staging, with inspired choices and various styles of song (performed by the cast in full, because of course they play instruments too…) and storytelling making appearances. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s fabulous set hints at Regency era indulgence but wisely steers clear of excessive fuss while her costume designs (lengthy jackets disguising maid’s dresses by the millisecond) are ingeniously efficient and transformative. Emily Jane Boyle’s playful choreography and Simon Hayes’ expressive lighting provide further polish to an already heavily perfected production.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that this sort-of-P&P is as rich visually as it is in the writing which explores shades of meaning so well. Anything goes if it’s in the name of good times and laughs but a surprising source of brilliance for something so funny is also the sincerity we meet. There are key scenes which swiftly become moving and meaningful, making this a production which goes far beyond the one dimensional comic adaptation approach which seeks laughs at all times and at all costs.
And finally, this production excels when the scenes are pushed beyond the point where many would call it a day. When your face is starting to hurt from the hilarity of watching Bingley in flirtation mode or Mr Bennet’s inspired cameos, you’re expecting relief and removal to a new scene but Brotherston bravely doubles down. The same goes for the more sincere moments – we sit expecting the Darcy/ Elizabeth tension to break and we’re denied. We’re forced to feel the gravity of poor Charlotte’s choice before we’re allowed to get back to the laughs. Whether comic or high drama or both, it’s that pushing to the limits of expectations which serves the whole kit and caboodle so well.
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is a thoroughly vibrant production borne of impeccable stagecraft. Part gig-theatre, part affectionate retelling of a great tale and part fearless pursuit of hilarity, there’s quite literally never a dull moment here. I’d like to think that if the sassy Austen we know and love were alive and swinging both fists at the patriarchy in 2020, it might look a good deal like this. So brilliant is it in fact, that I’m going back before it flits off to its next tour stop – tickets are few to none for Leeds Playhouse so don’t dilly dally!
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) is a Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre Company production presented by Leeds Playhouse and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. It plays Leeds Playhouse until February 29th 2020 and you can* (*might, if you’re lucky) find tickets here. The show tours until April 11th 2020 and you can find tour information via the Twitter page (@BOTYtheatre).