Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) at Criterion Theatre
Fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will be delighted to know that the classic novel has been revived once more, arguably in its most unapologetically hilarious form to date.
Re-written and co-directed by Isobel McArthur, the play begins with five maids introducing the story of the Bennet sisters, the young girls whose mother (played by McArthur herself) is on a desperate mission to marry off to as affluent a party as possible. The eldest, Jane Bennet (Christina Gordon), falls in love with the wealthy Mr Bingley (Hannah Jarrett-Scott), but his disagreeable friend Mr Darcy (also played by Isobel McArthur) disapproves, and openly offends the Bennets – Jane’s witty sister Elizabeth (Meghan Tyler) in particular. A series of conflicts, misunderstandings and courtship games ensues. Meanwhile, the youngest Bennet, the frivolous Lydia (Tori Burgess), causes further trouble for the family.
Each actress takes on two or three roles, effortlessly switching from one character to the next. In spite of the quick and rudimentary costume changes, the transformations feel very convincing, thanks to the cast’s brilliant performances. Music plays a crucial role as the characters often break into song, seamlessly weaving pop hits into the 200-year-old plot. But even as they belt out ballads in karaoke style, they manage to keep it graceful, displaying strong vocal skills and playing various instruments to boot.
The play can be enjoyed even without any knowledge of the novel, but those who know it will find that this version balances on the sweet spot between familiarity and surprise. On one hand there is a recognition of the iconic elements of the story, and on the other there are laugh-out-loud moments that seem to come out of nowhere, but that are actually an intrinsic part of Austen’s work. While Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is an original script with its own jokes, many will notice that this rendition is actually very faithful to the original story, sometimes even retaining the novelist’s words ad verbatim.
The clever intervention applied by McArthur and co-director Simon Harvey mainly consists of adding little touches, sometimes just a facial expression, that transform Austen’s subtle irony into outright comedy. This approach suits a theatre setting exquisitely well. The romantic dimension that makes many a reader (and many a fan of the 1995 BBC series) dream and sigh is somewhat sacrificed here, but for a good cause. The hilarity of the work takes centre stage, and so does the social critique of repressive mores and class injustice.
The play succeeds in the challenging feat of reinventing a classic whilst staying true to its spirit, highlighting the very elements that Austen was likely most keen to express.
Photos: John Crockett
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is at Criterion Theatre until 17th April 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.