PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (Sort Of)
by Isobel McArthur after Jane Austen
Directed by Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey
Criterion Theatre – open ended run
Every so often a little show comes along pretty much unheralded and without star casting that strikes a chord with audiences and critics alike, and ends up sticking around in the West End for years: think The Play That Goes Wrong, Six, Stones In His Pockets, The 39 Steps, Reduced Shakespeare Company (the last two of these were of course long term occupants of the Criterion on Piccadilly Circus, where Pride & Prejudice* (Sort Of) looks likely to remain for the foreseeable future). Yes folks, here’s another to add to that illustrious populist list. Despite a somewhat unwieldy title (which makes total sense once you see the show, which you absolutely must), this is the sort of joyful comic romp that will appeal to all ages (although be aware there is some swearing, if you’re planning to bring youngsters) and is likely to get a lot of repeat business from patrons curious to see what they missed while their heads were thrown back in mirth on their previous visit.
Written by Isobel McArthur “after Jane Austen”, it’s one of the most cheeky and charming examples of having your theatrical cake and eating it that I’ve ever encountered; for the brilliant McArthur (who co-directs (with Simon Harvey), plays Mrs Bennet AND Mr Darcy, and also plays piano and accordion because, well, why not…) has created a skilful spoof of Austen’s beloved novel and the sober-sided ways it’s often dramatised, as well as a remarkably complete rendering of the actual story itself. It’s very clear that, for all their inspired mucking about with it, McArthur, Harvey and their team have a great deal of affection for, as well as a formidable working knowledge of, Pride & Prejudice the novel.
What they bring to it is crazy comic invention, phenomenal energy, raucous anachronisms (“Darcy wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire!”), genuine wit …and karaoke. The all female quintet who roar through this life-enhancing spectacle playing multiple roles are sensational physical and vocal comics who miraculously still find the kernels of truth in what they are doing, thereby sending the already highly amusing up into the comedy stratosphere. It’ll be a long time before I forget Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s fantastically arch, screamingly funny Caroline Bingley trying to woo Darcy while discrediting Meghan Tyler’s glorious Northern Irish Elizabeth Bennet, or the sight of Jane Bennet (Christina Gordon, lovely) on a full size horse gamely pretending that the water pistol repeatedly fired at her by Tori Burgess’s hysterical younger sister is an unexpected rain shower. The five performers are just magic together, and “Comedy Staging” specialist Jos Houben should probably get an honorary Olivier award for this work on this.
Here’s a world where the catering at a society ball includes Wagon Wheels and Irn Bru (the production originated in Scotland), or where characters emerge from a modern day rubbish skip (a Jane Aust-bin….their joke, not mine) in full Regency dress and brandishing percussion which they then play, where Mr Bennet can occupy quite a lot of stage time but is never actually seen, or where Elizabeth can suddenly produce a mic and start berating Darcy with a rather terrific version of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Despite all the fun (and there is a heck of a lot of that), there emerges a very strong sense that in Austen’s world the men had the power but it was the women who drove things.
It looks good too: the costumes are nicely mock-lavish, and Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s gorgeous set, a circular book-festooned staircase climbing into the flies, mirrors the colour scheme and patterns of the Criterion’s own dust-pink and cream auditorium and even features a replica of the theatre’s own chandelier.
The second act falters a bit, almost as though the creators had realised that they were so busy showing us a good time that they’d forgot there was still quite a bit of the plot to cram in, and could probably lose about twenty minutes. By the end though, the audience is spontaneously on it’s feet, galvanised by an unexpected but entirely delightful rendition of the Candi Staton disco classic “Young Hearts Run Free” from the junior Bennet sister who has hitherto been banned from singing at family parties (the fabulous Burgess again).
This show is nuts: Austen as the adorable love child of Mischief Theatre and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, with a large dash of Laura Wade’s The Watsons and the National Theatre of Brent. It takes you to that smashing place where you just can’t stop laughing. Is it perfect? Well, no. But is it the funniest show currently in the West End? Absolutely.