It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British public never tires of re-treading Jane Austen’s classic, from the endless TV remakes to wackier iterations featuring zombies or Bollywood song and dance numbers.
But a musical version in which the entire cast is played by five women posing as jaunty “below stairs” staff? And with hen-night karaoke hits added to the mix?
It looks, at first, like the comic concept behind the Reduced Shakespeare Company with Downton Abbey and St Trinian’s thrown in. The actors, posing as servants at Longbourn, do double-quick costume changes to enact all the characters in Austen’s caustic comedy of manners, from the Bennets and Bingleys to the priggish Fitzwilliam Darcy. The minimalism extends to Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set (a chandelier here, a Japanese vase there), which seems to be pulled out of a travelling troupe’s box of tricks.
Writer Isobel McArthur co-directs with Simon Harvey and she performs too, shining brightest in her doubling up as Mrs Bennet and Darcy, calculating in the former role and misanthropic in the latter (“You know who I can’t stand? People.”)
Hannah Jarrett-Scott plays Charles Bingley along with other ancillary parts (Bingley’s snobbish sister, Caroline, and Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas) and she is outstanding in them all. Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth is strong and sarcastic, singing a stinging version of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain at Darcy in their first, spiky encounter.
In a winning touch, Mr Bennet is portrayed as an empty chair, always facing the wrong way with only his newspaper in view. Mrs Bennet talks at the chair and the joke never gets tiresome, the absurd one-way exchange oddly reminiscent of Winnie and Willie in Happy Days.
The rest of the cast, including Tori Burgess and Christina Gordon, not only have brilliant comic timing but ooze charm and agility, singing (everything from Holding Out for a Hero to Young Hearts Run Free) and playing instruments (piano, accordion, harp, trumpet).
As far as McArthur’s script goes, the (*sort of) in the title is key, with comedy that is hearty and upfront in place of Austen’s sly satire although it captures the essence of the book. The show, which began life at the Tron in Glasgow, has the spirit of fringe theatre and its rough-hewn, riotous nature might have sat at odds with this West End venue but it proves a natural fit with just the right balance between scrappiness and careful orchestration.
The issue of the below-stairs class is delivered bluntly and it is a shame that neither Kitty Bennet nor Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, appear. There are some obvious jokes, too, with Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s entrance bringing a rendition of Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red and an allusion to Colin Firth’s “wet shirt” scene.
But these are quibbles in the greater mix and most importantly, the romances hold surprising purchase. Jane and Bingley’s love is tender while the sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is at first satirised but then feels sincere, his desire wrestling against his awkwardness and fizzing between them. An unspoken love is also latched on featuring Charlotte as a closet lesbian and this is amusing but also tragic.
When the energy dips, the actors pick it back up and come to a roaring end. However inconceivable a production it sounds, with its karaoke numbers and its silliness, it creates something new and joyous from the old.