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A unique retelling of Jane Austen’s most iconic love story.

Having bagged the 2022 Olivier Award for best new comedy, Pride And Prejudice*(*sort of) is all the rage at the moment - and quite right too. 

A unique and audacious retelling of Jane Austen’s most iconic love story, the show has proved a winner with critics and audiences alike, with celebrity fan Stephen Fry describing it as an evening of ‘hilarity, romance, madness and utter theatrical joy”. 

Alongside the raucously irreverent but admirably affectionate retelling of Austen’s rollercoaster romance, the show also boasts a host of pop classics, including Young Hearts Run Free, Will You Love Me Tomorrow and You’re So Vain. 

Seriously, what’s not to like? 

Playwright Isobel McArthur’s cheeky contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride And Prejudice, might be irreverent but it’s also affectionate and accurate. “After all, why would I mess with her brilliant thing?” she tells What’s On...

When fledgling actor, director and playwright Isobel McArthur was offered the chance to develop a production for the main stage at Glasgow’s Tron theatre, the venue’s artistic director, Andy Arnold, only had one pre-requisite - the play had to be the reimagining of a literary classic. 

The task not only led Isobel to fall in love with the work of an author she’d previously avoided, but rocketed her career from struggling drama graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to award-winning West End success story. Not bad considering her choice of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice from the stack of 50p classics she’d bought from a second-hand bookshop was not only random but largely in order to dismiss it.

“I thought, I’m not gonna get on with this because it’s gonna be unrelatable,” she says in a broad Glaswegian accent (Glasgow patter to the locals). “I was picturing a lot of people in drawing rooms thinking they had problems when they really didn’t compared to the poor wee guy downstairs struggling to make ends meet. But then I read it, and on page one I was laughing and thinking, wait a minute... it’s a comedy?!”

The discovery was not only a lightbulb moment in terms of the potential for her own work, but smashed all Isobel’s preconceptions about the book, which she admits were largely prompted by dreary costume dramas on TV. 

“The telly adaptations and films are so po-faced… I don’t know what it is about regency or period or romance that has made us think it really needs to be quite serious - because it’s not! The book’s daft! It’s farcical in parts and satirical in others, but it’s just gag, gag, gag - she’s so brilliant at writing jokes.”

Making the novel’s humour her focal point, Isobel then needed to find ways to ensure the material worked for her intended audience.
“It was quite easy for me to just reinstate all the comedy, and since I’d surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the book, I needed to find a way to share it with Glasgow audiences. I needed to go ‘This is for you, even though you might think it isn’t, or even if someone’s told you Austen’s not for Glasgow, and Glasgow’s not for Austen.’”

The result is Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), an unapologetically irreverent adaptation of the tale of Elizabeth Bennett and her long and winding road to romance with dashing Mr Darcy, told from the perspective of five female servants and incorporating an array of classic pop songs. Each of the elements is designed to demolish preconceptions as well as draw in new audiences, says Isobel.

“The pop culture baggage of Austen is that she’s really lofty and the reserve of intellectuals or academics - or just people who read very long old novels - and it’s punching through that by offering up things with which we’re all familiar, or which certain generations or types of people are familiar.

“I think when you shove a Viennetta into a Jane Austen story, you can tell what sort of crowd you’re playing to by how many people gasp and applaud and go ‘Yes! That was posh pudding when I was growing up!’ In Glasgow that gets a certain reaction, whereas in Edinburgh they don’t really know what it is.”
The play - originally designed to run for just two weeks at the Tron - was always going to be an all-female affair, but Isobel was aware she needed other “creative invitations” to get the audience on board.

“For me it needed to be told by the servants, so we have this working-class voice narrating the story, and there needed to be a musical language for the show, because in Glasgow music’s what usually gets your granny to a show.

“You invite different sections of the audience in at different points using different devices, and music is just one of those. It’s also a fantastic storytelling device, as the makers of proper musicals will tell you - it can get you from A to B far quicker than dialogue.”

The songs in the show run the gamut from cheesy pop (Chris de Burgh, Bonnie Tyler, The Partridge Family) to cool indie (Elvis Costello, Pulp, The Divine Comedy), but have two things in common - it’s all music that Isobel loves (“I get to inflict my musical taste on people”), and it’s all performed as karaoke. 
The karaoke idea not only fitted with the original production’s limited budget but also enabled Isobel to draw parallels between people showing off - or being forced to sing - in contemporary karaoke bars, and characters attending posh balls in Austen’s novel, when women were encouraged to play piano to demonstrate their accomplishments, and therefore eligibility, to potential suitors.

“I started thinking about how you walk past pubs in Glasgow that have got karaoke on a Friday night. The singing, the expression and the feeling you get from karaoke - all human emotion is up there on display. People who have just had break-ups, people who are drunk and just showing off, people who have been forced on to that platform and are feeling shy, or want to let someone across the room know they’re in love with them… it’s really incredible.

“There just seemed to be so much to be mined, and it also crosses a lot of class boundaries - we all know what it is, we’ve all experienced it. So that’s why it felt so right. And it’s a right laugh as well.”
Audiences seem to have agreed on all fronts. After its low-key debut, the play enjoyed a hugely successful run in the London West End - earning this year’s Olivier Award for Best Comedy - and is now on a major tour of the UK. 

Isobel, who has stepped away from acting in the show to concentrate on directing during the current tour, says she hopes audiences will leave theatres with smiles on their faces because the production is all about joy - as opposed to the boy.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but we try to celebrate not just what it is for lovers to end up together and everything to be tied up neatly at the end, but also those people who maybe don’t end up with the partner and how brilliant and happy they can be in their lives as well. I want to leave audiences feeling energised.”

by Steve Adams

on Mon, 19 Dec 2022

Pride And Prejudice (sort of) is a feisty and fabulously funny retelling of one of the best-known romances ever written. Having won the 2022 Olivier Award for Best Comedy whilst showing in the West End, the production is currently enjoying its second successful UK tour.

Faithful to the original Jane Austin plot, the show recounts the trials and tribulations of the five Bennet sisters, who need to marry. The patriarchal restrictions of the Regency era dictate that only a male can inherit, which would leave the siblings and their somewhat neurotic mother homeless and destitute upon their father’s death...

This imaginative, witty and exhilarating show sees the entire cast of characters played by just five women. The story is retold via the observations of servants of the featured families, rather than through the Bennet sisters and their male counterparts. Overlooked and undervalued, the servants interject with views and opinions throughout the show, breaking the fourth wall by interacting directly with the audience. changing costumes at superspeed and using a variety of dialects to great effect.

Although not a musical, the show does feature a selection of contemporary karaoke-style pop favourites, performed by the actors using handheld microphones. Songs such as Holding Out For A Hero, Young Hearts Run Free and Lady In Red fit cleverly into the story and are well performed by the cast. The actors also play a number of different instruments throughout the performance, including the piano, accordion, trumpet, saxophone and xylophone. The use of music is upbeat and funny, adding yet another dimension of playful silliness to the show.

Nobody plays Mr Bennet. His character is depicted by an armchair with its back to the audience, a floating newspaper and pipe smoke. 

Unlike the other actors, all of whom play a variety of roles, Emmy Stonelake stays in the part of the headstrong and opinionated Elizabeth Bennet for most of the performance. Her rendition of You’re So Vain, directed towards Mr Darcy (masterfully played by Dannie Harris), is one of the show’s many highlights. 
The whole cast, which also includes Lucy Gray, Leah Jamieson and Megan Louise Wilson, are magnificent. Their energy is tremendous, comic timing perfect, and characterisations simply sensational. The cast literally burst onto the stage at the beginning of the show and don’t let the pace drop even for a second. 

A rude, riotous and rip-roaring comedy from start to finish, Pride And Prejudice (sort of) last night had its audience (including me) laughing out loud way too many times to remember. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in heading for home with a smile on my face. 

4 stars

Reviewed by Sue Hull at Malvern Theatres on Tuesday 30 May. The production runs at the theatre until Saturday (3 June).

4 Stars on Tue, 30 May 2023

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