Review by Richard Stewart
In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how boring I find Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
This is not for want of trying – I want to like it. It’s one of the most loved and well regarded books in English literature, full of wit, memorable characters and quotes that have become part of the culture of the nation. I’ve read the first half of the book at least four times and watched Colin Firth emerge from a lake like a Napoleonic Ursula Andress more than I care to admit in print. However, though it is tolerable, it is not handsome enough to tempt me, full of outdated social conventions and characters parodied so often it’s hard nowadays to see the work in isolation (and with not a zombie in sight). So I turn to Bromley Little Theatre and Julie Binysh’s cast and crew to help me see my prejudices, overcome my own pride, and stop making this review all about me for the sake of word count.
Unlike the Austen novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this production – more than I anticipated. Bryony J Thompson’s adaptation is very well suited to keeping the style of the book’s writing intact, with actors speaking characters’ words as well as key narrations from the book that serve to fill in what that character is doing or thinking, with nearly every word direct from the original Austen. Having ‘offstage’ actors sat at the back, each with a copy of the book, reading along with the action on stage, makes for a lovely framing of the story being told in front (and what is theatre if not story-telling?).
This also means that, with over 30 characters being played by a company of seven, actors are free to simply tell us through narration who they’re playing in the scene. This is somewhat of a saving grace, as the company swap characters so fast with very little obvious costume or prop signifiers that keeping up with who is being who at any time becomes tricky, particularly for one not as familiar with the story. Some fare better at differentiating their parts than others: Jacob McCloskey in particular skilfully pulls triple duty as the quietly charming Bingley, smirking rogue Wickham and the idiotically insufferable Collins. Alice Foster’s ear-piercingly annoying Lydia Bennet is perfectly excessive compared with her studious and knowing Mary, though I wished there was just as much character to separate Charlotte Lucas and Caroline Bingley, considering their effect on later events.
As for the rest of the Bennet family, Steve Williams’ distinctive delivery is perfect for the razor-sharp, weary sarcasm of the Bennet patriarch, while Heather Wain – always a joy to watch – is a wonderful partner for him, full of boundless energy and warmth, at least until her nerves get the better of her. BLT newcomer Emily Roach rounds out the ensemble nicely. She displays a delicate poise that is perfect for this sort of role, and her affectionate interactions with Bingley as Jane Bennet were lovingly subtle. It’ll be nice to see her play a part with more teeth in future, as while her pairing with Lydia as Kitty Bennet was energetically mischievous, it needed a bit more stage time to really explore. One to watch out for in future for sure.
Any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is going to live or die with the central pairing of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and while the rest of the company swap characters at breakneck speed around them, Megan McGery and James Jaggs stay as just the one throughout in a welcome bit of grounding. The two are uniformly wonderful, both individually and as a couple, delivering some of the more venomous barbs at each other with perfect restrained anger or gentle teasing as called for.
Jaggs perhaps remained stoically aloof during moments where a more comfortable, tender Darcy would have been suitable later on, but it was never in doubt that under his tension and stony exterior his affection for our heroine was genuine. While I still do not quite understand why Darcy is the poster child for the literary romantic hero, Jaggs certainly convinced me of why he’s such a good foil for the character of Lizzie. McGery herself had some immense literary shoes to fill as one of the greatest female characters ever committed to print, but pulled it off with ease.
But if one thing was more than apparent throughout the production, it was the genuine love and joy emanating from everyone on the stage. The Bennets felt like a real family, with lovely little interactions between them that filled in the space between the lines with authentic moments of affection, and that’s just something you can’t easily fake. While I may not have been finally turned on to the romance of the novel as I’d have liked, I definitely felt the love the company had for each other, and that can really make a production something special. Now, where is my Kindle? Maybe fifth time’s the charm.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’