Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Pride and Prejudice (sort of)’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 2nd November as part of a nation-wide tour.
If Star Trek’s Doctor McCoy were watching this, he might be wont to say, “It’s Austen, Jim, but not as we know it”. Indeed, setting ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in outer space is the only excess left, now Tron Theatre, with Blood of The Young, have had their wicked way with her novel. Never have I seen a story so mercilessly lampooned, and yet survive; it’s integrity pretty much intact.
This is a riotous, rebellious, completely-over-the-top telling of the tale by six chamber maids from below stairs, wearing white undies, black pit boots and yellow marigolds. They are the women who launder the bedding the Upper Classes frolic in. So, they are untitled to their irreverence.
Directed by Paul Brotherston, it’s presented in modern English (I’ve never heard the F-word get such a perfect laugh) with karaoke microphones and a beat box to puncture the story with hit parade songs; so well chosen, they encapsulate angst in a way that Jane Austen’s original prose never could.
When Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth Bennett wants to tell Mr Darcy what she thinks of him, she bursts into Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ with such a double-edged smirk it brings the House down. Two hours later the entire auditorium was giving the entire cast a stupendous ovation.
There are six of them…all young woman with a preponderance of regional accents. So, yes, Darcy, Bingham and Wickham are rakish girls in white nighties and period military uniform. Isobel McArthur plays Darcy and Mrs Bennett, both with brilliant observation. Darcy is clearly a stiff, ram-rod Presbyterian; Mrs Bennett can’t control her chaos. When Christmas goes so badly, she’s panicking that, “the Baby Jesus will be spinning in his grave.”
The internal jokes stack up wonderfully. When Darcy is introduced to the five daughters, they all stand back in amazement. “But… you’re so dry!”, they squeal. They were clearly expecting someone sopping wet.
And the visual gags keep on coming. Of course, Jane needs a horse to ride over to The Bingley’s, so here’s a statue of Red Rum on casters. Christina Gordon later appears at the mysterious Lady Catherine de Burgh. A pair of dark glasses define her status…and she just can’t wait to sing a song about a Lady in Red, written by a distant nephew, Chris.
Miss McArthur’s script makes no pretence at being anything other than a satire of a satire. She makes no claims to be illuminating the text or any other such nonsense. She simply takes Austen to infinity and beyond.
Nor does the show shy away from Austen’s 18th Century concerns.
Amidst the mayhem and tom foolery is a deep respect for women who simply feel they will never be able to marry for love…or sense the shame they can be subjected to if they dare run off with a soldier. And underlying it all is Mr’s Bennett’s eternal fretting about what would happen to the family’s financial security if none of her brood should woo a wealthy man.
On the other hand, Miss McArthur also finds Brexit jokes Miss Austen never knew she had written.
The witty lines and ridiculous moments come so thick and fast, your own mental agility is given a real run for its money. It’s a first-rate idea : take a well-known and much-loved polite novel and run riot with it. It’s brave, bold and crazy … and it works a treat. I only wish the original author had been in the spare seat beside me…stuffing her mobcap in her mouth to control her hysteria.