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Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) - Criterion Theatre

The theatre had run out of programmes by the time I got round to seeing Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) – on its final performance at the Criterion Theatre, a premature closure in the West End during what is still a particularly tough time for the live entertainment industry. Such is the pace and sheer number of characters being portrayed by five actors I can only relay what the front of house staff told me – having sold me a playtext: Annabel Baldwin was on for Elizabeth Bennet, in place of the lead actor. I couldn’t quite determine who that was, not having a programme with headshots to work it out, and the cast in the playtext is listed in alphabetical order without ascribing who plays which roles. So I asked someone in the closing night audience – you know the type, the superfans who have seen the show multiple times and are probably on first-name terms with the entire cast. I have it on good authority that Meghan Tyler was indisposed.

Anyway, I realise I’m making this show come across as more complicated than it really is, given that it isn’t that difficult to follow, once the stagecraft, dialogue and costume changes are taken into account. I’m glad I am in possession of a playtext, as my knowledge of chart music is almost non-existent, and the text helpfully lists the songs contained in the show. I mean, even I know ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ when it’s in my face, but some of the other tunes were totally unfamiliar. Going into the show knowing it is ‘sort of’ allowed me to expect the unexpected, and not to be bothered about any straying from the Jane Austen novel.

Technically, it’s a paradox: a play that makes clear it’s set in the pre-refrigeration era makes repeated use of handheld microphones, either to amplify a singing voice over backing instruments or to emphasise a point. There’s a hen party karaoke night feel to proceedings, and the five-strong cast begin by telling the audience they are servants. The production therefore aims to be subversive, not quite in the manner in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead provides a completely different perspective on Hamlet, but by providing a framework that allows the servants to make observations on proceedings in a contemporary light. Freedoms and privileges granted to men but denied to women are highlighted in an engaging manner, and at no point did I ever feel as though I were being clobbered by a feminist agenda. Quite the opposite, in fact: there’s even a reference to the ‘wet shirt’ scene in a BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.

The production is very, very self-aware, and is unafraid of acknowledging by way of parody and humour, shortcomings in the storyline. It’s incredibly silly – there’s a horse called Willy, which means there’s inevitably an instruction for a rider to “mount Willy”. Someone who points out that bad language is not looked on favourably in the household where she works is told to “fuck off”. But it works – it’s (almost) all in the delivery. This kind of laugh-out-loud humour is just the tonic in this tight and gloriously unruly production. It’s a relief to have caught it just in time. It’s an even greater relief that the show’s producers have confirmed a forthcoming tour and a follow-up West End run.

Four stars

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