Austentatious (Tour – Norwich Playhouse)
If you plan to stage an improved entertainment based on audience suggestions, you need two things. One is an ensemble whose members can pick up instantly on a dropped clue or tangled thread. The other is to confine yourself to a particular genre. One example is the manor-house murder mystery. Another, to quote Jane Austen, is just "three or four families in a country village". Austentatious takes its titular author's own preference and runs with it.
At the Norwich Playhouse performance I saw, after the audience had been cajoled into writing down its own preferences for the hitherto undiscovered novel title to be dramatised, Mistresses and Manners was the chosen option.
We're in a country house in 1814, with one daughter (Agatha) already launched into society, her younger sister Clara wishing it to be her turn, and their cousin about to attend her own coming-out ball. This girl is Lizzie Taylor (more could perhaps have been made of this) and she has a mother not too far removed from Pride and Prejudice's Mrs Bennett.
Dominating the preparations for Lizzie's début is Dr Folkestone, a deportment disciplinarian in more than one sense. Then there's tongue-tied Mr Wensley, as crumbly in society as the eponymous cheese on a plate.
What's more, he has a thing about Roman aqueducts (don't ask!). While Agatha and Clara's father Mr Barker dithers, Mrs Folkestone arrives uninvited. All is revealed – or is it?
The six actors – Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Charlotte Gittins, Rachel Parris, Graham Dickson and Andrew Hunter Murray – with the on-stage cellist CJ Lodge work well together with just the right blend of period detail (excellent costumes) and 21st century fun.
You sense that their enjoyment of Austen runs quite deep; this is the sort of send-up which requires knowledge of and affection for its source. It is very funny, but I was left with a feeling that something more was needed – some elusive magic-dust which hovered but never quite descended.
Austentatious tours nationally until 4 June.