Empire lines with Dr Martens! What would Jane Austen think? PATRICK MARMION reviews Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) (Criterion Theatre, London)

Verdict: Girl pride without prejudice! 

Rating:

What a gorgeous paradox: a Pride & Prejudice that’s delightfully predictable and yet endlessly surprising.

First seen at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018, this show is the brilliant, all-female brainchild of Isobel McArthur, re-spinning the well-worn yarn of Jane Austen’s novel, ostensibly from the point of view of the servants.

Although completely faithful to the book, it’s also a raucously irreverent romp, related in Empire line dresses and Dr. Martens.

What a gorgeous paradox: a Pride & Prejudice that’s delightfully predictable and yet endlessly surprising

The ball at Meryton, where dashing Mr Darcy first appears, serves Wagon Wheels and Irn-Bru. 

But much of the sugar-charged, childlike joy lies in the way the cast conjure up microphones from silver platters and then burst into karaoke caterwauling.

We kick off with Elvis Costello’s Every Day I Write The Book and The Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow? before climaxing in a lovely rendition of Pulp’s sweetest song, Something Changed.

In between, the piece of resistance is Holding Out For A Hero (‘where have all the good men gone?’) and a very amusing snatch of Lady In Red (attributed to snooty Lady De Bourgh’s nephew ‘Chris’).

And all the while, I found myself getting more and more engrossed in a story I thought I knew backwards. 

First seen at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018, this show is the brilliant, all-female brainchild of Isobel McArthur, re-spinning the well-worn yarn of Jane Austen’s novel, ostensibly from the point of view of the servants

Although completely faithful to the book, it’s also a raucously irreverent romp, related in Empire line dresses and Dr. Martens

McArthur judiciously includes, amid the (sometimes blithely sweary) banter, Austen’s elegant gems, such as the one about heroine Lizzie being ‘so desperate to seem at ease that ease deserted her entirely’.

And the characters positively blaze on the stage. McArthur plays the inscrutable Mr Darcy as a self-important stiff who’s satisfyingly redeemed. 

Doubling up as Mrs Bennet, she also makes sense of that character’s anxiety about her daughters and adds an unexpected seam of Yorkshire wit.

The daughters themselves are a terrific team, with Jane (Christina Gordon) a loveable teenage romantic, Lydia (Tori Burgess) a wannabe WAG, and Lizzie (Meghan Tyler) a tall, strident Ulster girl who’s actually a teeny bit credulous.

And in a touching twist, Hannah Jarrett-Scott plays the Bennets’ friend Charlotte as Lizzie’s lovelorn admirer.

Improvised on and below a sweeping staircase crammed with second-hand books, there are moments of genius including creepy Mr Collins being introduced with wet hands (after flushing the loo); and a lifesize model horse called Willy for Jane to ride to the Bingleys (cue extremely racy humour).

Conceived by, and perhaps aimed at, younger women, this is nevertheless a show for all sexes and ages — in particular the young at heart. 

(They might even have included that chirpy little Bluebells number in the karaoke.)

Blue/Orange (Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath)

Verdict: What’s up, Doc?

Rating:

In Joe Penhall’s blazing, blistering Blue/Orange, a junior psychiatrist and an older consultant slug it out over whether Christopher, a young black man who believes oranges are blue and that Idi Amin is his dad (it’s possible), should be discharged from an NHS hospital.

Conscientious Dr Flaherty thinks Chris has borderline personality disorder, possibly paranoid schizophrenia, and doesn’t want to risk him becoming dangerous. 

Casually uncaring Dr Smith says there is a shortage of beds, suggests Chris’s problems are his ‘response to the human condition’ and that he is a victim of the medical establishment’s ‘ethnocentric’ bias towards mental illness in black men.

The brilliantly written play is a battleground, with words used as weapons, innocent phrases resurrected and returning like boomerangs, edges sharpened to kill. 

Perceptions have changed since the play was written in 2000, thanks to more discussion of mental health and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, which gives James Dacre’s powerfully performed revival the feel of a period piece.

That is a shame because the play still packs a potent punch. Michael Balogun’s Christopher is compelling. One moment he is hyper, buzzing, swaggering and eager to leave hospital; the next coiled, cowed and vulnerable.

But then everyone on the stage is more than a little mad. Might he be the sanest of them all?

GEORGINA BROWN

A Christmas Carol (Nottingham Playhouse) 

Verdict: Cheer trumps chills

Rating:

The Christmas Carol season has started early . . . very early. First, this one adapted from Dickens’s story by Mark Gatiss, who also plays Jacob Marley opposite Nicholas Farrell as Scrooge.

Still to come, we have the Old Vic’s latest take, this time with Stephen Mangan playing the old misery; and there will no doubt be many more Ebenezers bah humbug-ing their way out of the woodwork before December 25.

Gatiss has sought to focus on the ghoulishness of the tale, which he may be alone in believing has been ‘undervalued’ as a ghost story. 

And yet the result is no more ghostly than normal. Apart from showing Scrooge’s famously dead associate Marley briefly alive, the main innovation is the Ghost of Christmas Past looking like a rugby prop forward in a lacy white smock.

As the Ghost of Christmas Present, booming Joe Shire may be a little more forbidding than usual. But the last ghost is a standard-issue grim reaper.

The Christmas Carol season has started early . . . very early. First, this one adapted from Dickens’s story by Mark Gatiss, who also plays Jacob Marley opposite Nicholas Farrell as Scrooge

Adam Penfold’s production lays on Hammer Horror gimmicks including spectral video projections and flying sheets. 

But you’ve got your work cut out to make a tale as familiar as this seem creepy. So Paul Wills’s set design wisely packs in plenty of déjà vu. 

He conjures Scrooge’s office with towers of dusty filing cabinets and video projections of smoking chimneys.

Gatiss also pops up in League Of Gentlemen mode with multiple other turns. 

Farrell makes a sternly dyspeptic Scrooge, but he’s light on his feet, too; capable of a sprightly jig when he finally uncorks his seasonal jollity.

Carols at the end ensure the evening is more about Christmas cheer than ghoulish chills. 

But you may prefer to hold out for its run at London’s Alexandra Palace to enjoy as a midwinter warmer.

christmascarolonstage.co.uk 

PM

Brian & Roger (Mixing Room, Menier Chocolate Factory, London)

Verdict: Two peas in a podcast 

Rating:

Given the honour of opening an impressive new 150-seater space below Southwark’s boutique Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, meet Brian & Roger: two down-on-their-luck divorcees, and the stars of Harry Peacock and Dan Skinner’s cult comedy podcast.

Mousey Roger has been turfed out by his wife and is moonlighting as a lollipop man.

Dodgy Brian is living ‘in the shadows’ as a petty crook; mixed up in a rigged poker game with Albanian gangsters in a Wiltshire abattoir.

It’s a perfect mix of character comedy and a plot worthy of (the first) Hangover movie — except it’s all told through voicemail left on each other’s phones.

Stepping in for Peacock (who bowed out for health reasons), Simon Lipkin is brilliantly possessed as Brian the bastard — a dodgy bloke with a wobbly middle and thoroughly untrustworthy mateyness.

Dan Skinner’s beardy Roger, with his bomb-blast hair, is a loveably meek, endlessly forgiving doormat. 

Warned by his shrink that someone is trying to manipulate him, he remains pitifully devoted to his embarrassed son and merciless ex-wife.

David Babani’s often hilarious production showcases the new space with stunning video projections by Timothy Bird that take us from dreary London suburbs to Beijing’s red light district.

With very strong language and excruciating sexual antics, it won’t be everyone’s cuppa, but fans of the podcast should prepare to fight for a ticket. And I’m now one of them.

PM

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