When writer and director Isobel McArthur was commissioned to produce an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it came with a word of warning: make sure it connects with a Glasgow audience. The advice must have worked not only for a Scottish audience if the reaction from Manchester’s theatregoers is anything to go by. A standing ovation was given to the cast, with one person behind me saying they were crying with laughter at the end.
McArthur says she endeavoured to bring something of the music hall spirit to the adaptation of this classic and this comes through strongly. Lots of visual gags, knockabout humour and shouts-out to the audience make it a romp of an evening.
Perhaps the most surprising element is the introduction of karaoke into what many view as a precious book (Jane Austen fans being particularly protective about their revered author). McArthur justifies this by saying that a lot of the plot revolves around big parties where matchmaking takes pace – sounds just like a karaoke bar to this reviewer.
The show is faithful to the broad outlines of the plot: the five Bennett sisters must all be married off to save their mother from shame and financial ruin. Mr Darcey (who else?) and Mr Bingham are primed to be plucked for the altar and – no spoiler alert needed – nobody quite ends up with the partner intended for them.
The show delights in taking apart romantic notions of love and of family life and injecting it with coarse humour and language, much to the delight of the audience. Yes, you will hear the F-word in a Jane Austen show. In their bickering and putdowns to their overbearing mother, the sisters could be from any family in Glasgow or Manchester. They burst into song at the drop of a plot turn, belting out numbers by Pulp, Candi Staton and Chris De Burgh (the show is worth seeing simply for the Lady in Red skit – Lady Caroline, anyone?).
Dannie Harris plays the often-foul mouthed Mrs Bennett, presented less as Edwardian drawing room than EastEnders tap room. Emmy Stonelake, with a stunning singing voice, plays the headstrong Elizabeth, and all the actors – Leah Jamieson, Lucy Gray, Megan Wilson, Ruth Brotherton and Laura Soper – play an array of parts, male and female, and perform some amazing quick-change scenes. There is a not-so subtle feminist undertow to the work and a sideways critique on the lives of never-seen servants.
The show does have its stutter moments. It is difficult to switch from spirited hi-jinks and capers one minute to lengthy expositions on the intractable problems of love and marriage the next. Novels tell and drama shows and therein lies the tension when adopting classics such as this, a bit too wordy at times.
Nevertheless, this was a small price to pay for the audience who loved the interaction, the exuberance and the sheer vitality of the performances – if this was a Glasgow music hall then it’s fair to say the test has been passed.
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is at The Lowry from 19-21 January 2023.