"It could become a fusty story if you're just sitting in drawing rooms waiting for people to propose, reading long letters." Comedian Sara Pascoe was right to be wary about taking on a version of the unspeakably popular novel but, with comrades Susannah Tresilian (direction) and Emmy the Great (music), she has carefully trod the line between honouring the original and manipulating the story with her 21st century eye.
Pascoe's approach is to run the story through conventionally, albeit with fizzy and accessible dialogue, whilst interweaving present day scenes which explore the play from a dramaturgical standpoint. Two schoolgirls mardily question the motivations of the Bennet sisters to a teacher, the actors themselves explore their parts in the rehearsal room with a female director and two film editors manipulate scenes on computers before embarking on an affair. Whilst this aspect might upset the purists, these entertaining vignettes certainly serve to raise significant questions about Austen's novel and provide a vehicle for Pascoe's wit and slant. Why for instance, it is hinted at, do we get so involved with Darcy? Is he actually likeable and decent enough for the singular Elizabeth to finally succumb to all this convention? 'You would have done the same' (or words to that effect), is the repeated motif given by the characters, referring to the restrictions of the time in which the story was penned.
The gags are as abundant as you'd expect and this comes ready-made from Austen as much as Pascoe. Those delicious situations with Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins go down a treat, audience members practically saying the words before they leave the actors' mouths. The energetic ensemble render the characters with such skill and singularity, most playing several parts. Alice Haig delivers some belting lines as Kitty, Kerry Peers tirelessly works seemingly half a dozen different parts, including Mrs Bennet, and Matthew Romain manages to give another humorous take on the bumbling, deluded Mr Collins.
There's also a hilarious episode at the Ball, where Adele Parry's choreography turns a dance into farce, brilliantly making use of mannequins.
The music is understated but befitting: a piano often tinkers away melodically in the background. There are several gently subtle songs that bring sense to a questioning modern audience, where women are not merely a man's possession. Just when it's all getting a bit too soppy at the end, for instance, the creative team offset the syrup with a highly satisfying, cynical comedic number to send us off.
This is a respectful and successful take on one of the most known novels in English history. It can't have been easy, yet the creatives have managed to make it fresh and fun, whilst raising pertinent questions.
Pride and Prejudice runs at Nottingham Playhouse until 30 September. It will then transfer to York Theatre Royal from 4 October to 14 October.