Six fresh faces take to the stage in a burst of song, exuding flamboyant fun as they accessorize their Georgian petticoats with marigold gloves and Doc Marten boots. This is the ‘below-stairs’ brigade in the Upstairs-Downstairs set-up, an under-described population in Austen’s novels, adding a whole extra dimension to the story with comic effect.
With seamless on-stage costume changes, the six-strong cast morph back and forth from these nearly-nameless maids into matriarch Mrs Bennett and her daughters; suitors Darcy, Bingley, Wickham and Mr Collins and other key characters. Christina Gordon for example, is both the perfectly lovely insipid eldest daughter Jane in baby-blue yet transforms into a horrifyingly domineering Lady de Bourgh with the stage presence of a panto dame. Alongside Isobel MacArthur, the talented writer of this masterpiece, switches from the wailing bustling Mrs Bennett into a smouldering Mr Darcy that gives Colin Firth some serious competition. I was entirely smitten with both him and Lizzie who – played by Meghan Tyler – was bold, sassy, and totally loveable. It made me chuckle that as the performance progressed, she became gently but increasingly dishevelled, in a two-fingers gesture at that fairy-tale norm where the heroine steps into the finale at her most magnificent. Mr Bennett himself was a stroke of genius, his portrayal a perfect representation of his engagement with family life and the worries of his womenfolk when their future security depended so heavily upon their matrimonial chances.
Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s performances of both rich-boy Bingley and his Maleficent-style sister were wonderful, yet it was her depiction of Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte Lucas and her unfulfilled yearnings and hard choices that pulled on the heart-strings. Whilst the show is undeniably a double comedy (a comedy take on the original comic telling) there’s also an undercurrent of something more. The plight of the younger sisters is tinged with pathos too: Lydia largely ignored, Kitty taunted by Lydia in an interesting take on the sisterly relationship between the two, and hilarious Mary – well… just don’t let her sing!
Whilst the show is set in Georgian times with a sweeping staircase and chandeliers surrounding the changing elements that signpost the various settings, this gaggle of daughters have contemporary teen attitudes, the formal balls are karaoke and disco, and the whole show is thoroughly lubricated with copious booze. No wonder it’s such a great night out.
And so, while Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is (nearly) as old as the hills and has trodden the boards in a myriad of guises over the years, like a good wine it just gets better with age. This show is a wonderful new Beaujolais; light and fruity, with fresh red-blooded characters and interesting notes. Of course, it is probably all the better if you know the novel inside out, as I suspect most of the auditorium did, but this mischievous modern show will have even the previously uninitiated on their feet at the finale, with a wonderful surprising twist.
This is a whole-hearted and enthusiastic five stars, and with six cast members, it really deserves a sixth!
Pride and Prejudice (Sort of) will be at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 14 March