Review: Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) (Bristol Old Vic and tour)
Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre's piece returns for a major UK tour after premiering in Glasgow
There are plenty of refreshing women-focused revisits to historic tales on at the moment. Not least the hit herstory Six, which shines a light on Henry VIII's wives. This adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel is not as short, nor as anthemic as that (nor is it – quite – a musical), but there is something of a similar vibe to the way company Blood of the Young and writer Isobel McArthur playfully enable their characters to sound much like women dealing with life today.
And despite the fact that you can't quite escape the premise of Austen's book – that at least one of the five daughters in the Bennet family need to be married off sharpish because only a male can inherit their family money – the voices we hear are strong, dynamic, funny and wise. They treat the patriarchal restrictions imposed on them with a roll of the eyes and a flick of the hair. It's in this way that McArthur makes sure Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) embodies the bright and daring spirit of the original writer, who tested, and occasionally poked fun at, the gender norms of the male-dominated society of her time.
The "sort of" in the title refers to the way the story is told, rather than any changing of the tale itself. Make no mistake, despite there being only six people in the cast, Austen's narrative, from every stop-start relationship, to each glamorous ball and every scandalous elopement, is there. But the writer's clipped prose is replaced with McArthur's rough, raw, hoot-filled lines. The all-women troupe swear, sing and switch costumes throughout, running hell-bent through the winding narrative and provoking laughter at pretty much every turn. Paul Brotherston's expert and beautifully timed direction offers up confetti, microphones, life-sized horses, trumpets and pretty much anything else your heart could desire, including songs. We hear versions of "I Think I Love You" and "Everyday I Write the Book" and "You're So Vain" – the latter sung with glorious deadbeat drollness (directly at a bewildered Mr Darcy, naturally).
All of the performers make their many moments shine, from Tori Burgess' singing-obsessed Mary, to Christina Gordon's shrill and overbearing Lady Catherine. McArthur's frowning Darcy hits absolutely the right balance between romantic interest and idiocy, while Hannah Jarrett-Scott is a perfectly pitched well-meaning buffoon-ish Mr Bingley. This is a group of performers with perfectly set funny-bones.
Brotherston also makes enough of McArthur's politically-charged jabs land, not least the veiled reference to us living in more enlightened times (debatable) and a slight refocus onto the servants. While in the original novel servants are there, but in the background, here they are the ones to kickstart proceedings. And despite the story itself not necessarily developing any servant-characters, they are the narrators, musicians and more. It's a reminder of the silent, unseen ghosts of these sorts of primarily upper-class stories.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is a total blast of hilarity from start to finish. It sticks faithfully to Austen's brilliant story (which is remains one of the best romantic plots ever written) while opening it up into a riot of fun, colour and mischief-making. It is dramatic re-invention at its most enjoyable and if Austen aficionados don't enjoy it just as much as Austen virgins, I'll eat my pink Regency bonnet.