PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF)

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _BIRMINGHAM REP.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _22nd APR.

April 17, 2023

images © Mihaela Bodlovic.

Canted, revisionist and parodic theatre is hardly anything new. Heck, it’s practically a staple of any self-respecting fringe festival. In the West Midlands alone, there’s a running calendar of theatre ‘with a twist’ on history or classic literature for the immediate and foreseeable; April has Austen, May presents Dickens’ turn (with Unexpected Twist at the Wolverhampton Grand), whilst June sees the return of the merry wives of Windsor and their pop concert shebang Six (back in Brum at the Hippodrome).

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), however (itself up there amongst the most irritating of titles to repeatedly type out), is Olivier award-winning revisitation. And, whilst no single accolade or award – even those cast in the visage of Sir Larry – are automatic, unequivocal guarantees of quality, here is a twist on formula and familiar that truly sings (…literally).

With some knowing metadramatic framing, Isobel McArthur’s canny spin centres around a quintet of oh-so-Austen housemaids and servants, lamenting the sorry lot that they and their ilk get lumbered with in many of the classic romances or romantic epics. They settle on the titular classic as a prime example, and see fit to play out a retelling of the tale, using their five strong group as a troupe of stand-ins for practically the entirety of the Pride & Prejudice OG cast (father figure, Mr. Bennet, being a hilariously-realised exception, along with a couple of the Bennet sisters).

There are echoes of Mischief Theatre, and even tonal dashes of the likes of, say, Acorn Antiques, in the distinctly British silliness at which McArthur pitches this retelling. It’s barmily enjoyable and relentlessly funny throughout, though perhaps most welcome is how so much of the fun and humour is born of the characters and performances themselves.

“…barmily enjoyable and relentlessly funny throughout”

Sure, there are some environmental gags and visual buffoonery littered throughout (an early horse riding sequence is particularly bonkers) – including more than once instance where Colin Grenfell’s lighting is used to puncture the equivalent of a comedy edit on screen – but for the most part, the talented troupe of ladies who bring this twisted, postmodern riff on Austen to life is where the real substance (and silliness) springs from.

Austen-tatious adaptations…: As one of the most prolific and well-read classics in literature, ‘Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is far from being the only canted spin on Austen’s classic. Seth Grahame-Smith‘s ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘ (pictured above, © Bridgeman Art Library International Ltd.) is one of the more notable and popular examples, which itself inspired a 2016 film adaptation. 

In what proves to be a rather inspired wrinkle, the show isn’t so much a musical as it is peppered with frequent moments of mic-in-hand karaoke, and with a track listing that cycles through everything from Bonnie Tyler to The Partridge Family, coupled with its all-female cast, the whole thing is leant a palpable fringe-meets-hen night kind of feel.

What sounds on paper like it should be a tonal cluster bomb actually delivers an impressively consistent and faithful trip through Austen’s celebrated classic. Of course, that’s with the delicious caveat that stately balls and debuts are replaced here with baudy, plastic-cupped discos featuring towers of Irn Bru cans. Where cordially sipping glasses of champers is replaced with necking back bottles of WKD Blue, and where there is liberal use of f-bombs and similar coarseness to gusset up this raucous (yet never crass or cynical) retelling.

Austen-tatious adaptations…: As one of the most prolific and well-read classics in literature, ‘Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is far from being the only canted spin on Austen’s classic. Seth Grahame-Smith‘s ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘ (pictured above, © Bridgeman Art Library International Ltd.) is one of the more notable and popular examples, which itself inspired a 2016 film adaptation. 

All five of Pride’s (sorry… that full title and formatting has me beat) cast are, inevitably, on multi-role duty, meaning each get ample opportunity to shine. Lucy Gray regularly plays narrator, but is most deliciously repugnant as an ersatz, snobbish Caroline Bingley, whilst Megan Louise Wilson goes to town pitching her Lady Catherine as a venom-spewing, cane-stomping harridan (where her other characters mostly cut straight). Dannie Harris switches – sometimes within a matter of moments – between the truly laugh-out-loud bluntness and furniture-chewing melodrama of the Bennet matriarch, to a deadpan, self-serious Mr Darcy (including a delightfully droll nudge to his iconic lake sequence) and is hilarious as both.

“If Stonelake and Harris prove Pride’s heart (their central romance holding surprising water), Jamieson is its freewheeling, barnstorming funny bone.”

Steering true amidst all of the madness about her is a resplendent Emmy Stonelake, whose maid takes on the mantle of the story’s heroine, Elizabeth. Not only does Stonelake offer up some of the best vocals of the night (roof-raisingly impressive), but so too does her earthy, Cambrian grit lend the show an earnest, likeable heroine to root for. An extraordinarily naturalistic and gifted comedienne, Stonelake is certainly a talent to watch, as is the chameleonic Leah Jamieson, who cycles through one larger-than-life, giddily idiosyncratic character after another. If Stonelake and Harris prove Pride’s heart (their central romance holding surprising water), Jamieson is its freewheeling, barnstorming funny bone.

From shaking maracas to full-blown on stage instrumentations, quick costume changes and silly visual gags aplenty, there’s scarce downtime in the inspired silliness on show here, and the talented fivesome never dip in exuberance. Whilst at just over two and a half hours, there’s a sense that it could probably be a slightly leaner beast, the energy in McArthur’s writing and both she and Simon Harvey’s direction keeps the laughs, gags and, perhaps most unexpectedly, investment, coming thick and fast. Audible gasps at later plot twists and developments showcase an adaptation that, for all of its genuine fun and tomfoolery, still manages to pull off the dramatic threading and curvature of the source material. No mean feat for a show that features an entire set piece around a garish green ‘Jane Aust-bin’.

Take a dash of the Goes Wrong franchise, throw in a sprinkle of Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, and throw it all in a blender with liberal lashings of Six the Musical, and you’ll land somewhere in the neighbourhood of Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of).

It’s a giddily funny and blissfully silly evening of theatre that, against all odds and amidst its own wonderfully anarchic trappings, offers up Austen’s tale with surprising fidelity and resonance. It’s infectiously feel-good and frequently laugh-out-loud; an aggressive hug of a good time, with a hearty dose of indie, fringe and hen-do flavourings, to boot.

Revisionist and parodic theatre may be all the rage, but, like Austen herself, this is no pretender to the throne.

It is, sort of, without prejudice, a bonafide gem to be more than proud of.

A fresh, funny riff that throws Austen, karaoke, parody and pastiche, new and old alike into a melting pot of inspired, feel-good silliness. Smart, sharp writing and some truly inspired performances cement something to be proud of, indeed.

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