‘Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)’ is a raucous retelling of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ that started life three years ago in a tiny Glaswegian theatre and has spent the intervening years gathering momentum.
Basically it’s exactly the same story, but with a lot more swearing, and a five-strong company – which includes its writer-director Isobel McArthur – tearing through all the parts with pleasing irreverence. So McArthur’s Darcy is a ludicrously taciturn grump; Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s Charlotte Lucas is a tragically repressed lesbian; Mr Bennett is literally just a chair and a newspaper; and best of all, Meghan Tyler is absolutely terrific as a lairy Lizzie Bennett with a Northern Irish accent that could strip paint. The real secret, of course, is that ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is a funny book already, but MacArthur and Simon Harvey’s production sandblasts off the Georgian niceties and lets the characters get in touch with their ids. So sure, Austen’s Bennett isn’t nearly as boisterous or boozy as Tyler’s. But she remains fundamentally true to the spirit of the forthright heroine.
And there’s karaoke! It’s definitely not a musical, but songs frequently happen: there’s an indie vibe (Elvis Costello, Pulp), but it gleefully sucks in all sorts, from Carly Simon to Chris de Burgh. To be honest, it could probably make a bit more of this: we tend to get snatches of songs, spaced far apart, but it’s undeniably a laugh.
Stretched out over two-and-a-half hours it does wear itself thin. It’s brimming with energy, but ends up feeling like a slightly MOR endeavour, an extended riff on the enduring British love of the novel rather than a revelatory deconstruction of it. A framing device about the play nominally being performed by the anonymous servants from the book doesn’t really go anywhere, and the throwaway nature of the gags about Charlotte being in love with the oblivious Lizzie essentially speak to an unwillingness to interrogate the original text in any serious way. The fact the cast is entirely white also speaks of a limited desire to get out of the Austen comfort zone.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the Austen comfort zone: the West End is the perfect place for it, and the fact the audience were both laughing along with the new jokes and cheering at the unchanged romantic resolution of the story is a measure of this production’s ability to have its cake and eat it. And Tyler’s Lizzie is consistently brilliant, like she’s wandered in from an edgier production entirely.
Basically I’m still in mourning for Laura Wade’s brilliant meta-Austen ‘The Watsons’, which was due to hit the West End last year but got derailed by the pandemic. ‘Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)’ is absolutely not in the same league. But it is an awful lot of fun, a naughty-but-nice celebration of Austen’s classic that could easily find itself shacked up at the Criterion Theatre for years to come.