Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) on the West End: An interview with star Tori Burgess
A hilarious new rendition of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel is taking the West End by storm. Isobel McArthur‘s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is a fun, witty and surprisingly faithful retelling of the classic story. The all-female cast recreate the iconic love tale and social critique as they sing, play instruments and take on multiple roles. They all begin as five servants who act as narrators, guiding the audience through the story, and smoothly switch roles throughout, keeping the laughter going without a moment’s pause.
The Upcoming caught up with the talented Tori Burgess, who stars as the youngest of the Bennet sisters, the exuberant Lydia, as well as the tedious Mr Collins, poor Mary Bennet, and more. She told us how she prepared for these roles, how she felt making her West End debut, and why comedy is the toughest genre to master.
What was your experience of Jane Austen before working on this show? Has your perception of her work changed since?
I must confess that my experience of Jane Austen prior to working on Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) was very limited. Having now read the novel a few times and having been immersed in Austen’s world since we first performed the show in 2018, I am definitely a fan! When I read the novel for the second time I picked up on the humour so much more, too.
Austen is known for her irony, but were you aware that there was so much comedy to unleash beneath the surface?
Honestly, no. I had no idea it would be this funny. I think what Isobel McArthur has done brilliantly, writing our version, is find a language for the story that makes sense for everyone. The direct address of the servants really helps this too. In rehearsals I thought it was so impressive when I’d say to Isobel, “I love this line’ – and she’d reply, “It’s straight from the novel.” I think that shows you how Austen’s work stands the test of time – as every classic should!
Do you feel extra pressure working on a classic, knowing that the audience will come in with so many preconceptions and expectations?
Absolutely. It’s difficult to please everyone, I think. But, a lot of the Austenites love our play. And that for me is an achievement! I think this show really does have something for everyone. It’s such an accessible show. I urge non-theatregoers to come to see it, and they will love it too.
You seem to really be enjoying yourselves as a group when performing. Did some of the gags emerge during rehearsals or was it all pre-scripted?
A bit of both, I think. Isobel’s incredible writing did a lot of the work, or she would set up a moment and we would play within that. We were also lucky to work with Jos Houben, who was our comedy advisor on the show. What I loved learning from Jos was that he always looked for truth in comedic moments – making sense of a gag is how you find the humour in it. I love the moment where Christina Gordon, as one of the servants, encourages Darcy to hug Elizabeth. I distinctly remember her playing about and doing that in rehearsals and then we kept it in. Hannah Jarrett-Scott and I love watching that bit from the wings every night. I think what’s brilliant about the show is that every moment of it feels so alive to perform. And also, things go wrong all the time, so it keeps you on your toes!
You play a number of characters in the play, including the frivolous Lydia and the dull Mr Collins – two personalities that are poles apart. How did you prepare for these roles?
I love playing Lydia. She’s a riot. She reminds me of me when I was a teenager, vocally and physically. I don’t have to dig very deep to find Lydia! She’s so cheeky. However, Mr Collins was totally different to prepare for. He brought up so many questions about how to portray a boring character on stage, especially as this show needs to happen at 100mph. I would consider myself quite an energetic performer, so at first it felt strange to stand on stage and do very little. I like it now though. I think it’s important to find something you love about each character, too. Even though Collins isn’t the most likeable character, I find the thought of him outside in his garden and doing DIY very comforting. For me, the key to multi-roling characters is all accessed through their physicality – simply through leading with a different body part – it gives you an “in” for a character.
The play is very demanding – you don’t have a moment’s pause. What was the greatest challenge in switching between all the different roles?
Remembering who you are! When we were first rehearsing the show I’d often come on stage as a servant still wearing Mary Bennet’s bow in my hair.
How did you feel making your West End debut?
I’m still pinching myself. I feel like I’ve won a competition. And then I remember how bloody hard I’ve worked and I give myself a talking to. We all deserve this, and we are so, so, so thrilled to be here.
Do you find that audiences experience the play differently in different cities? How are Londoners reacting, for instance?
They love it. I think we all need a laugh at the moment, don’t we? We’ve performed this show in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton and now London. I thought people in different places might react differently but it goes down a treat wherever we go.
Is there a particular theatre production that you dream of performing in?
Oh! There are too many to choose from. And so many theatres I’d love to perform at. I can’t decide. Although if someone ever adapted The Royle Family for the stage…
You recently created a lovely audio drama, A Tale of Two Giants. Did the pandemic affect how you see the performing arts, and all the different ways of telling stories and connecting with audiences?
Thank you for listening. Alongside acting I’ve always been passionate about making work with and for communities and young people. Having some time in the pandemic provided me with an opportunity to marry these two worlds. I adapted and recorded a local folk story for young people to listen to and each episode had a different walk to go with it. It was great to feel like I could still connect with a community, albeit in a distanced way!
What’s your favourite thing about Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)?
Performing with the most brilliant and inspirational group of women I’ve ever met. Also, hearing an audience laugh their heads off when Charlotte Lucas leaves the stage to see Mr Collins and give her second opinion on whether “it’s infected”.
What does comedy mean to you? Is it your preferred genre as a performer?
Life is funny – I find comedy in everything. Even in some of the saddest moments of my life I’ve managed to have a laugh. I think that’s the same with art too. I love performing comedy, but it’s definitely the most difficult genre to get right as everyone has a different sense of humour. But when you nail it, it feels so good!
Photo: Matt Crockett