Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Bath Theatre Royal

WHEN five cleaning ladies, dressed in late 18th century clothes, but with modern boots instead of delicate slippers on their feet, took over the stage with the house lights still up, and informed the audience that they were going to tell them the tale of Pride and Prejudice from their point of view, you could almost hear the thought going through many minds, “Oh Lord, not another send up presentation.” These spoofs are very funny for a while, but often run out of steam before the final curtain.

Isobel McArthur’s “sort of” interpretation of Jane Austen’s much-loved story with the introduction of some modern songs and lyrics, which invariably hit the right comedy note, has a great deal more to offer than your average knock about send up comedy. As the five cleaning ladies take on the guise of all the characters within Pride and Prejudice, regardless of gender, the story, including a few of the more dramatic moments, can still be seen amongst the outright comedy.

There is a temptation in such plays to look for some cheap laughs by taking advantage of a modern audience’s tendency to laugh at any expletives, or reference to private parts uttered by a character you would not expect to use such language. Showing admirable restraint Isobel McArthur went down that path very sparingly, and as a result, like the one swear word in Pygmalion, gained maximum audience response every time.

Apart from Emmy Stonelake, equipped with a distinct Welsh accent, who metamorphosised from the cleaner Emily to Elizabeth Bennet, the other four cast members appear to have been born in different parts of the country, playing all the Bennet girls and many of the other characters, mesmerisingly brought all to life with just a quick change of costume or added wig.

It takes excellent acting technique to change in a flash from the shallow Mrs Bennet to the romantic Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Dannie Harris did it with ease, she and Emmy Stonelake moving from comedy, as mother and daughter, to romantic couple in fine style. If you are looking for opposites try the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the timid Jane Bennet, both played convincingly with equal conviction by Megan Louise Wilson.

Leah Jamieson’s character of the wayward Lydia does not occupy as important a role as she does in the book, which leaves Leah time to change characters as often as the peacock men of the period changed clothes during one day. Lucy Gray was another who donned male clothes to portray an ineffectual Charles Bingley, and having spent the entire evening trying as Mary Bennet to sing to us, received a rousing round applause when she was finally allowed to do so in the last scene.

Having won the battle to entertain audiences in Jane Austen’s heartland of Bath until 4th February, this production now embarks on a lengthy tour which includes the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham from 6th to 11th March, New Theatre, Cardiff from 20th to 25th March, Bristol Old Vic from 8th to 20th May, Hall for Cornwall in Truro from 22nd to 27th May and Exeter Northcott from 12th to 17th June.


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