It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 19th century book in possession of a good plot must be in want of a modern update. It is also a truth universally acknowledged, that one in every two review of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) starts with its own clever-clever adaptation of the novel’s famous opening line. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, undeterred, I continue.
Isobel McArthur has added to the gamut of modernising Austen with PAP* (*SO), her sensationally funny 21st century version of Austen’s classic tale of sisters and suitors. Born at the Tron Theatre Glasgow back in 2018, since then the show has had one UK tour that came to a halt because of Covid, a West End run at the Criterion, and is now halfway through a second UK tour. All this, and winning the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment or Comedy Play. That’s quite some achievement.
The all-female cast of five play the entire Bennet family (well not quite Mr Bennet, who is built of just newspaper and armchair), all the male love interests, all the peripheral characters and all the servants, switching brilliantly between the roles with just the donning of a jacket or the swishing of a dress. In fact, it’s from the servants’ angle that the story is primarily told; that seems fair, as they point out that there wouldn’t be any courtships or shenanigans if it wasn’t for the loyal service of the maids and attendants. The households simply couldn’t operate without them.
I have to let you into a secret, gentle reader; I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, which is an enormous oversight for someone with an English degree. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining the plot to you because, well, you know it already. However, I’m happy to confirm that on Saturday night I was accompanied at the Chichester Festival Theatre by seven other people, at least four of whom knew the novel from back to front, and who were able to confirm that Isobel McArthur’s madcap imagining of the book is surprisingly faithful to the original, with perfectly adapted characterisations and reworkings.
I can, however, surmise that the use of karaoke is probably a new addition. The choice of songs that the characters perform, and which dovetail beautifully into the text, is inspired to an nth degree. The songs are all well known but you would never – in a million years – align them with this tale of marriageable daughters from over two hundred years ago. I Think I Love You, You’re So Vain, Something Changed… I couldn’t believe the cheesy appropriateness with which The Lady in Red was shoehorned in, and I promise you, you will be singing Young Hearts Run Free all the way home.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has constructed a simple, versatile set for the show, dominated by an extensive staircase that leads from the ground floor (of whatever country house we’re in) to who knows where. It’s fascinating how a dramatic pose by a character languishing on the top landing can have such an impact on an audience’s collective funnybone. The plain white costumes of the maids contrast splendidly with the colourful dresses of the sisters, the extravagant outfit of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the military/fashion-conscious garb of the chaps. If there’s one thing that this show proves, it’s that you can get a lot of humour out of costumes and props; it’s obscene how funny the simple use of a portrait frame can be.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Dannie Harris is hilarious as the slightly estuary Mrs Bennet, whose language gets gradually coarser over the course of the evening, hurling herself on the sofa in a self-centred huff; she’s also brilliant as the pompous and frockcoated D’Arcy. Lucy Gray hits a genuine emotion as Elizabeth’s friend Catherine, condemned not to love her bestie but to be yoked to the appalling Collins instead. Megan Louise Wilson delights as the dashing Wickham and the horrendous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as the thoroughly decent Jane. For our performance, the role of Elizabeth was played by Ruth Brotherton, beautifully wide-eyed but perfectly capable of standing up for herself, thank you very much. And Leah Jamieson treated us to some genuinely ecstatic physical comedy in her roles as Lydia and Mary Bennet, the revolting Mr Collins, and the kindly Mrs Gardiner. Each of them is also a terrific maid!
This show probably isn’t for everyone. If you think it might be a good way of getting young Jemima or Lavinia interested in the works of Jane Austen with just a tiny comic twist, think again – none of you might be ready for some of the language used. However, if you like unexpected twists of anarchical comedy, some of the cheekiest percussion around and can be grown up about it, this is the show for you. We all loved it. The tour continues to Cheltenham, Inverness, Cardiff, Nottingham, Eastbourne, Chester, Birmingham, Leeds, Blackpool, Bristol, Truro, Malvern, Exeter and Norwich – so you’ve got no excuse not to go!
Production photos by Mihaela Bodlovic