IIt’s a universally recognized truth that British audiences never tire of replaying Jane Austen’s classic, from endless TV remakes to more wacky iterations featuring zombies or Bollywood song and dance numbers.
But a musical version in which the entire cast is played by five women posing as casual staff “under the stairs”? And with girls’ karaoke hits added to the mix?
It sounds like, at first, the comedic concept behind the Reduced Shakespeare Company with Downton Abbey and St Trinian’s. The actors, posing as servants in Longbourn, quickly change costumes to play all the characters in Austen’s caustic comedy. , from Bennets and Bingleys to rascal Fitzwilliam Darcy. Minimalism extends to Ana Inés Jabares-Pita‘s set (a chandelier here, a Japanese vase there), which seems to have come out of a box of tricks of a traveling troop.
Writer Isobel McArthur co-directs with Simon Harvey and she also performs, brilliantly in her dubbing as Mrs. Bennet and Darcy, calculator in the first role and misanthrope in the second (“You know who I can’t endure? People. “)
Hannah Jarrett-Scott plays Charles Bingley along with other ancillary roles (Bingley’s posh sister Caroline, and Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas) and she is outstanding in all of them. Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth is strong and sarcastic, singing a scathing version of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain to Darcy during their pungent first encounter.
In a winning touch, Mr. Bennet is portrayed as an empty chair, always the wrong way round with only his journal in sight. Mrs. Bennet talks to the chair and the joke never gets boring, the absurd one-sided exchange eerily reminiscent of Winnie and Willie in Happy Days.
The rest of the cast, including Tori Burgess and Christina Gordon, not only have brilliant comedic timing, but exude charm and agility, sing (everything from Holding Out for a Hero to Young Hearts Run Free) and playing instruments (piano, accordion, harp, trumpet).
As far as McArthur’s script goes, the (* sort of) in the title is key, with hearty, straightforward comedy in place of Austen’s underhand satire, though it captures the essence of the book. . The show, which started at the Tron in Glasgow, has the spirit of fringe theater and its raw, tumultuous nature might have been at odds with this West End venue, but it turns out a natural fit with just the right balance of the scrappiness and careful orchestration.
The issue of the classroom under the stairs is delivered bluntly and it’s a shame that neither Kitty Bennet nor Darcy’s sister Georgiana show up. There are some obvious jokes too, with the entry of Lady Catherine de Bourgh bringing a rendition of Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh and an allusion to Colin Firth’s “wet shirt” scene.
But these are baffles in the biggest mix and, more importantly, the romances hold a surprising buy. Jane and Bingley’s love is tender while the sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is first satirical but then sincere, her desire battling her awkwardness and sparkling between them. An unspoken love is also attached to Charlotte as a lesbian in the closet, which is funny but also tragic.
When the energy drops, the actors pick it up again and end up roaring. As inconceivable as a production may seem, with its karaoke numbers and silliness, it creates something new and joyful out of the old.