An affectionate exercise in comic sabotage: Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) reviewed

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)

until 17 April 2022, until 17 April 2022

Indecent Proposal

Southwark Playhouse, until 27 November

Let’s be honest. Jane Austen is popular because War and Peace doesn’t fit inside a handbag. Austen’s best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been updated in a fetching new production that treats the sacred text as a screwball comedy.

The fun starts before curtain-up with the cast of five girls messing about on stage and struggling with a chandelier that almost shatters but doesn’t. This improv bit is irritatingly predictable. Then the show begins and the girls start to curse, laugh and pontificate their way through the tale. We get a feminist lecture explaining that Mrs Bennet’s predicament owes itself to the laws of bequest that prevented women from inheriting property. So if Mr Bennet dies, his wife and five daughters will be destitute. (This was news to me — as was the discovery that Mr Darcy’s first name is Fitzwilliam.)

The threadbare plot continues as follows: someone says something mean about someone else who turns out to be less mean than the mean person said he was. And then everyone gets married. And a man goes for a swim. Only he doesn’t because it’s not in the book.

That summary gives you an idea of the script’s cynical, knowing approach to the original. Everything is ripped to bits and reassembled with an ironic smirk and lots of songs, pratfalls, silly costumes and rolling around with daft props. It would be easy to dismiss this as a pointless essay in comic sabotage but the cast clearly adore Jane Austen. The show’s author, Isobel McArthur, plays Mr Darcy and she presents him as a solemn, high-minded sex god who seems a tad overimpressed with his moral grandeur. That’s exactly how he appears in the book.

Beneath the japes and larks, this show has integrity. And the cast of five are excellent comedians. Hard to pick a favourite but the boyish Hannah Jarrett-Scott catches the eye. This version won’t please every Austen fan and it’s the wrong entry point for newcomers. But if you’ve blubbed your way through a zillion on-screen adaptations and your heart still aches for more, this is where to turn.

In the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal, Robert Redford played a property tycoon who offers a married woman a million dollars to spend the night with him. In this musical version by Dylan Schlosberg and Michael Conley the action has moved to a seedy casino in Atlantic City. Under the terms of its licence, the club has to run cabaret acts alongside the poker games and roulette table. It’s an awkward set-up but the design works well enough.

Business wizard Larry takes a shine to the gorgeous Rebecca, who is married to a struggling singer/songwriter, Jonny. Will Rebecca accept a million big ones for an epic night of sex with Larry?

Jonny is keen. Rebecca is appalled. Larry plays mind games with the couple and asks them to compare a single throwaway night of love with years of married bliss. If they turn him down, he hints wickedly, their relationship may suffer. Rebecca obeys Jonny, beds Larry, and earns the money. And what does Jonny do? He accuses the poor woman of acting like a strumpet. What a cad! Larry settles the bill and transfers a million bucks not to Rebecca but to Jonny. He’s an even bigger cad!

It’s strange to see so much rampant sexism presented on stage without comment, let alone outrage. In Act Two, Jonny and Rebecca’s relationship disintegrates. But what happens after that? Do they reunite? It’s not clear. The later scenes are dominated by Jacqui Dankworth who does a wonderful comic turn as Annie, a warm-hearted friend of the warring couple.

Lizzy Connolly looks sensational as Rebecca and she brings a sardonic, low-key wit to the role. She makes the story work. The boys can’t keep up. Ako Mitchell (Larry) is handsome enough and his soul voice is great to listen to but his stage skills are less than dazzling. More cash should have been spent on his costume. A lot more. Why is this multimillionaire wearing a Primark suit and a pair of brown loafers from Save the Children? He’s a business supremo but he looks like a struck-off lawyer meeting his probation officer.

Norman Bowman (Jonny) is also mis-styled in jeans, unlaced boots and a scruffy shirt. He hasn’t even shaved. Since when did nightclub singers start to dress like window-cleaners? Jonny is a tough character to like. Effectively, he pimps out his wife to make some easy cash. Bowman gives him an air of irascibility and petulance that doesn’t sweeten the package.

Another minor blunder stands out. The cabaret show includes a newcomer, Heidi, who is praised as a big star of the future. But when she performs her song she just strums a few chords and then stops. Why build up our hopes and dash them to pieces like that? A crazy mistake.

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