Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

Isobel McArthur
David Pugh presents The Tron Theatre Company, The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Blood of the Young
Sheffield Lyceum

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Tori Burgess, Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon and Megan Tyler Credit: Matt Crockett
Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Isobel McArthur Credit: Matt Crockett
Tori Burgess, Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon and Megan Tyler Credit: Matt Crockett

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is a delightful romp loosely based on Jane Austen’s exquisite novel. In 2018, Isobel McArthur was commissioned by Andy Arnold of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre to write a version of the play which would appeal to the people of Glasgow.

McArthur tells us that her ‘preferred theatrical language’ includes the traditions of Glasgow music hall, live singing and instrumentation, gags and undermining the source material. "If you can do Austen for Glasgow audiences, you can do anything"!

In addition, the director of the play, Simon Harvey, has had a long association with Kneehigh Theatre Company, which has a similar approach and has produced a wide range of plays which radically reinterpret well-known texts and places emphasis on physical and musical theatre.

McArthur’s version of the Austen novel is performed by an all-female cast including herself, who initially appear dressed in plain shifts to which they add items of clothing which transform them into a wide range of different characters from the book. The most exciting transformations are when they assume male roles like Darcy, Bingley, Collins and Wickham and give them a satirical treatment.

The action is nominally situated in the C18 but has distinct modern equivalents. Mrs Bennet in either century is deeply concerned for the future of her daughters, but where the C18 Mrs Bennet has trouble with her nerves, the contemporary equivalent takes to drink and uses coarse language. One caveat about the script is the way in which a sequence which doesn’t quite hit the comic button is supplemented by a "f*** off" or other expletive which does. Then there is a laugh!

There is an exceptional performance by McArthur as Mrs Bennet, Darcy and more, not least because McArthur is so certain of the style of performance required. Christina Gordon is effective as Jane and in other parts, and Lydia is a convincingly modern teenager when things don’t go her way. The potential for satirical treatment does not seem to extend to Elizabeth, which is perhaps not surprising since she is the calm centre of Austen’s novel and the character we strongly identify with as young readers. Mr Bennet’s sardonic wit is not included in the play and, while his silent presence offers some amusement, it is not the same as the highly satisfying verbal exchanges in the original text.

All of the actors sing snatches from familiar songs and play a variety of instruments, which adds to the entertainment and enjoyment of the audience. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita provides a relatively bare stage set which is supplemented by carefully chosen items to represent the variety of different settings required by the story, including a sofa for the Bennet household, a framed portrait of Darcy for Pemberley and a horse for Jane’s rainy journey to Netherfield. Lady Catherine de Borg makes a dominating entrance in a magnificently opulent gown and hat, and while the coats added to represent the male characters sit strangely over the basic shifts of the women, they are a source of amusement.

This is a lively, fast-moving, entertaining production, beautifully performed by the cast and full of inventive comic business. It stands on its own as an entirely different experience from reading Austen’s novel. Nothing can diminish the excellence of that. But putting thoughts of Jane Austen to one side, this is good fun and an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Reviewer: Velda Harris