Words by Melissa Blease ` Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is playing at the Theatre Royal Bath until 4 February.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that… there’ll always be an audience for yet another retelling of Jane Austen’s classic, iconic ‘novel of manners’, Pride and Prejudice.
There have been numerous film versions, audio orations and TV dramas. We’ve had zombies thrown into the mix, a Bollywood version, reimagined diaries topping the YouTube charts and even a movie that relocated the whole story to New York’s gay vacation destination Fire Island. And now (and all this week), we’re going to party like it’s 1813 all over again as actor, writer and musician Isobel McArthur’s award winning 2019 ‘play with songs’ finds its spiritual home in Bath.
On paper, it’s a straightforward concept: the tale of Mrs Bennet’s plight to find “a single man in possession of a good fortune” for each of her five daughters and thereby save her family from imminent penury is retold by five ‘below stairs’ staff. However… the five main actors multitask as pretty much all the characters in Austen’s caustic comedy too, Bennets, Bingleys, Wickhams, Collins, de Bourghs, Darcys et al. Oh, and they sing (very, very well) and dance a lot (ditto) too; think, Downton Abbey meets St Trinian’s at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you’re almost there – but only almost, for McArthur’s unique creation (directed by the writer in collaboration with Simon Harvey) is very, very much all her own unprecedented, extraordinary work of genius.
In her key role as spirited bright spark (and second eldest Bennet sister) Elizabeth, Emmy Stonelake is a jewel in the sparkling ensemble crown, blending Scarlett O’Hara’s attitude with Nessa Jenkins’ witty sense and sensibility. Doubling-up in equally integral roles, Dannie Harris brings subtle hints of Abigail’s Party/Alison Steadman’s Beverly to her TOWIE-style Mrs Bennet, and smouldering sex appeal to the uptight, taciturn (at first, at least) Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Elsewhere (and in one of many strokes of comedy genius), Mr Bennet is only ever ‘seen’ as simply a silent chair with its back to the action, just a newspaper and the odd puff of smoke in view; Leah Jamieson’s adipocerous, uncomfortably creepy, itch-inducing clergyman Mr Collins is as adipocerous, uncomfortably creepy and itch-inducing as I’ve ever seen the character allowed to be; and a subtle subplot that quietly puts Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte’s unspoken crush in the mini-spotlight confirms a subtle subplot in Austen’s original tale.
Talking of which… even if you’ve never read the original book nor experienced any of the multiple adaptations thereof, the storyline throughout remains respectfully loyal to the whole, convoluted saga with none of the sneering contempt that all too many contemporary rebooters rely on for lame laughs. It’s intelligent, fast-moving, and genuinely funny, and the songs (The Shirelles, Pulp, Carly Simon, Candi Staton, Bonnie Tyler – oh come on, what’s not to love about such a playlist?) all have their part to play, without missing a beat. Wholly uplifting, beautifully-wrought, modern musical theatre gold? Yes indeed – without a hint of *sort of.