Let’s be honest. Jane Austen is popular because War and Peace doesn’t fit inside a handbag. Austen’s best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been updated in a fetching new production that treats the sacred text as a screwball comedy.
The fun starts before curtain-up with the cast of five girls messing about on stage and struggling with a chandelier that almost shatters but doesn’t. This improv bit is irritatingly predictable. Then the show begins and the girls start to curse, laugh and pontificate their way through the tale. We get a feminist lecture explaining that Mrs Bennet’s predicament owes itself to the laws of bequest that prevented women from inheriting property. So if Mr Bennet dies, his wife and five daughters will be destitute. (This was news to me — as was the discovery that Mr Darcy’s first name is Fitzwilliam.)
The threadbare plot continues as follows: someone says something mean about someone else who turns out to be less mean than the mean person said he was. And then everyone gets married. And a man goes for a swim. Only he doesn’t because it’s not in the book.
That summary gives you an idea of the script’s cynical, knowing approach to the original. Everything is ripped to bits and reassembled with an ironic smirk and lots of songs, pratfalls, silly costumes and rolling around with daft props. It would be easy to dismiss this as a pointless essay in comic sabotage but the cast clearly adore Jane Austen. The show’s author, Isobel McArthur, plays Mr Darcy and she presents him as a solemn, high-minded sex god who seems a tad overimpressed with his moral grandeur. That’s exactly how he appears in the book.