Sara Pascoe’s riff on Austen’s most widely-loved novel is a reinterpretation aimed at those with a prejudice about the characters’ choices. The original story is present as the larger part of a jigsaw of meta modern interludes; a couple editing the story for film/TV, a class of Catherine Tate style schoolgirls being taught by Lizzie, a TED talk on love and Austen, and the actors in rehearsal for the play-within-the-play. The framework attempts to bring some quantifying commentary to the Bennett sisters’ unique range of feminisms in relation to love and marriage. It both directly provokes inane questions (“Can we make this feminist?”; “Can love as we know it exist in a time like this?”) and subsequently evokes more intelligent ones (“What exactly is it about Austen’s stories that make us swoon so?”)
Carla Goodman’s design sees the action taking place within a giant birdcage in front of a tarnished mirror, no doubt enhancing the emphasis on the societal trappings experienced by our protagonists, and their parallels to our modern situation, with notable blind spots.
It’s unclear what the juxtaposition truly adds to our current understanding of Pride and Prejudice. Given the novel’s standing in popular culture, the presumption of such a level of ignorance in the audience seems a bit of a misfire. With such a lauded source text, it’s important to note what’s new about this version.
The differences: Darcy (Matt Whitchurch) is such a scanty presence, and displays little, if any, quality for Lizzie (Bethan Mary-James) to fall for; indeed they have so little interaction that there is no chance for convincing “dynamism”, perhaps left out to enhance Pascoe’s point on the shallowness of love connections made in the era. The modern intercuts bring Austen’s work into the territory of a kind of time-travelling Love Actually. Self-aware songs arrive late into the action, proving somewhat trite and awkward despite Emmy The Great’s perfectly fitting scores elsewhere, including on Austenland, which inspires similar self-examination of our attraction to the world of Austen. These lyrics fall short of revelation, though there are some refreshing and satisfying moments including a song between Lizzie and Jane. Mary (played by the brilliant Rachel Partington) is mostly played up for comedic effect, transcending simple distaste for what she perceives as her sisters’ trivial interests, and presenting instead as neuroatypical. Mr and Mrs Bennett (played by Adrian Irvine and Kerry Peers respectively) have moments of tender connection not present in other adaptations, which is both moving and welcome.
What remains? Lizzie is a role model in exemplary female friendships. She shares poignant moments of unconditional support with Jane, Mary and Charlotte, making no judgments on their disparate choices, which is more than can be said of the writing. Lydia (Olivia Onyehara) is familiarly obnoxious and vivacious, while Bingley (Matthew Romain) is unfalteringly charming. Mary-James’s Lizzie is perfectly sardonic and removed in public; loyal and generous with her loved ones. The superb cast make the show thoroughly enjoyable, as do some playful touches such as dressmakers’ dummies making appearances in the dance scenes. We’ll all be voting for Dummy #1 and Wickham (Alex Sawyer) on the next season of Strictly. Other highlights include Romain’s Mr Collins, with his interminable sermons and severely misjudged compliments.
The verdict: Austen was successful enough a feminist pastiche artist, and we need to place more trust in her. If this production proves any point about her stories, it is that their cores are so strong that we can pretty much do anything we want with them, and they will still be great stories populated by entertaining characters.