Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) was originally commissioned for Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018. Staged by McArthur and her fellow Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates, the production attracted the attention of several noteworthy industry figures. It was subsequently booked for a regional tour, then a national one, and was due to debut in the West End in 2020, before the pandemic happened. While its arrival at the Criterion Theatre is well overdue, an extra year in the oven has given the team more time to prepare for their dramatic scale up. The resulting show is a playful, sharp-witted five-hander that sifts the 19th-century text and rebottles it as a tonic enjoyable for audiences of all ages.
Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Tori Burgess, Meghan Tyler. Photo: Matt Crockett
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is not the first West End show to take an aged classic and infuse it with a dose of contemporary feminism. Six The Musical gives a voice to the ill-treated wives of Henry VIII, while & Juliet sees the Bard’s tragic heroine go on a pop-fuelled road trip instead of taking her own life. It’s also not the only Jane Austen comedy to open in the West End this week: Fringe favourite Austentatious has returned to the Fortune Theatre to fulfil its ill-fated 2020 run, cut short because of the pandemic.
Still, you can never have too much of a good thing.
With her reworking of Pride and Prejudice, McArthur celebrates the story as the original rom-com, repositioning the servants as fairy godmother-esque narrators integral to the clockwork of period drama love stories: it’s they, after all, who provide clean bedsheets and ensure letters are delivered on time. (If this sounds wacky, spare a moment to consider that McArthur was, at one point, considering narrating the tale from the point of view of a horse.)
Christina Gordon, Tori Burgess, Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Meghan Tyler. Photo: Matt Crockett
Dressed in floor-length white underdresses, washing-up gloves and Doc Martens, the all-female cast breaks the fourth wall to lightly mock but not belittle the conventions imprisoning women at the time, from the restrictive dress code that deemed the exposure of ankles as vulgar to the fact women could not inherit without marrying a man to whom they could tether their fortunes. In reimagining the story without the societal restrictions of the 1800s, McArthur also offers up a Charlotte who is secretly in love with Elizabeth – and it works.
In one especially witty scene, her adaptation leans into an awareness of the story’s more recent screen legacy, with the servants asking Mr Darcy why he has arrived at Pemberley Hall bone dry, and not dripping from a swim in the lake, à la the famous scene immortalised by Colin Firth.
Driving the production are its five hard-working performers, who beat the stiffness out of Austen’s characters, slipping between the personas with ease and injecting them with new verve and energy.
Meghan Tyler, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur, Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon. Photo: Matt Crockett
McArthur herself is magnetic on stage, flitting between portraying a perpetually frowning Darcy and a spoilt, scheming Mrs Bennet, who sobs into a box of Quality Street chocolates at the refusal of her daughters to settle down unhappily. A call out, too, must go to Tori Burgess, whose impressive versatility and impeccable comic timing is consistently scene-stealing, regardless of whether she is playing the minor Bennet sister Mary or her creepy uncle Edward Gardiner.
Humour is etched into every fibre of the show, from its whip-smart script through to its extreme physicality – a servant tightening a corset of a Bennet sister while placing a booted foot on her behind for extra support sets the tone.
To nitpick, some scenes in the second half are a little slow, but the show’s peppering of karaoke hits – You’re So Vain, At Last! and Something Changed among them – manage to perk up the tempo when it drops.
Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur. Photo: Matt Crockett
Dominating the stage is a giant, sweeping staircase by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, which trails off into the gods and provides a third wing for the stage somewhere up above, where many of the lightning-speed costume changes into pastel-hued gowns or coat-tails are carried out. Further props are wheeled on and off including a giant horse, a full-sized piano and the passive presence of Mr Bennet, portrayed inspiringly as a backwards chair with a newspaper poking over the top.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is gloriously Scottish – from the Irn-Bru-fuelled ball to the lilting tones of the Bennet family – and it’s encouraging to see this homegrown show flourish on the West End stage. McArthur not only makes Austen accessible for all, but a riot of a good night out.
|What||Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Criterion Theatre review|
|Where||Criterion Theatre, 218-223 Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus, London, W1V 9LB | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Piccadilly Circus (underground)|
02 Nov 21 – 17 Apr 22, Performances at 7:30pm with additional 3pm matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|