There are many things that can make an adaptation good. It could uncover something new in a well-known text. Faithfully translate something into a different medium. Find modern relevance in an old tale. What Scottish company Blood of the Young’s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) does is perfect for such a well known novel – it gives us more of what we want, in a joyful explosion of fun.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is Austen’s tale retold by the servants who inhabit the background, with added karaoke, snacks and hilarious hijinks. While keeping the same basic plot points (sometimes with moments rearranged or elided), almost all the dialogue is rewritten – not only is language updated but flirtations take different routes, fresh jokes appear, and characters pour their hearts out in new ways. This is fantastic; it gives lovers of the story more of the plot and characters they love (rather than just the same thing repeated with different faces), while creating a myriad of new ways to connect to the story for those put off by ball-gowns and regency sniping.
The show not only brings attention to the unappreciated figures who keep the world of balls and proposals running, but further fleshes out the relationships between all of the Bennett girls, and their mother. We see more of their discussions and commiserations and arguments than any version I know of gives us. Kitty (a character who is over so underdeveloped that in one adaptation she is literally replaced by a cat) for once feels like a real person, distinct from Lydia, with her own hopes and journey through the play; this is a production that could easily be called irreverent but it has this real sense of care for its characters. It is telling that after all the romantic happily-ever-afters it is one of the frequently ignored sisters who gives the show its joyous, roof-raising finale.
Throughout, the show feels generous and open; it manages to combine the celebratory atmosphere of a West End musical with the easy intimacy of a fringe show. We are all invited to the ball and it is a damn good one. Where some shows need to coerce the audience into participating, everyone here was just waiting for permission to join in – blasting out a chorus or a particularly fun bassline, cheering and clapping. What I found particularly fascinating was how the audience both hummed in recognition at quoted lines, and still gasped at major plot points. Of course, these could have been different groups of people (after all an audience is not a giant amorphous beast waiting to devour a show whole). But it sums up how even for those who know the story intimately, Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) it helps you experience those moments again anew.
So much of this is down to the energy and commitment in the performances. Meghan Tyler is a beguiling Lizzie – brazen and smirking, (almost) always able to respond to the chaos around her with wit and fight and sarcasm. The multi-roling by the rest of the cast is full of incredible transformations and creative stagecraft, and is perhaps best encapsulated by Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s collection of characters. Already giving a side-splitting performance as a Tim Nice-but-Dim-esque Mr Bingley, her transformation into Caroline Bingley is a masterpiece of upper class venom and utter ridiculousness. An attempt to draw Mr Darcy’s attention constantly seems like it will reach a peak of bizarre behaviour, only to surpass it a second later. Yet she also plays to a heart-breaking tee the only really tragic figure in the play – Charlotte Lucas, whose marriage to Mr Collins, unlike in many modern adaptations where she exerts a level of control, seems to utterly break her.
I found this initially an interesting choice in a production seemingly focused on bringing the fun, but one that on reflection tallies with a lot of the show. Much more attention is given to the material circumstances that fuel Mrs Bennett’s desperation to marry off her daughters. And there’s constant biting reference to the contrasting lives of the servants who watch this grand romance from the corners. Even the fun bits of the show come from committed engagement with the text rather than a cursory glaze of humour. Its reflections on the story, both serious and ridiculous, form a gorgeously kaleidoscopic version of one of the defining love stories of British culture.
I could mention the fantastic ways almost every moment of the novel is staged, but half the fun is waiting in gleeful anticipation to see how this company will twist it in their grasp. I’d urge both lovers of the book and those who have never seen the appeal to go – better than just a good story well told, it is a fantastic night out.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) plays at Bristol Old Vic until 28th September, then tours the UK until March 2020. More info here.