Austentatious at the Fortune Theatre review: We’re utterly persuaded

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It is clearly Jane Austen week in the West End. Isobel McArthur’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is about to open at the Criterion, but Austentatious, the long-running improvised Austen tribute slips in first by returning for their latest residency. Once more into the breeches...

For any Austentatious novices the concept is fiendishly simple. Every night the cast stages a brand new ‘lost’ Jane Austen novel based purely on audience suggestions of a title, preferably a wince-making pun.

On this occasion the decision was reached quickly. Emma Bovvered and Pudding and Perjury were contenders but the ensemble plumped for the saucier-sounding North Banged Her Madly. A least I think I heard it correctly. Cariad Lloyd, who picked it, claimed that Austen wrote 965 novels. I don’t think this was one of them.

From that point the troupe simply made it all up. We were promptly introduced to a grand family of soup magnates living in Watford. While the women seemed to spend their time hammering horseshoes, the patriarch, played by Joseph Morpurgo, ran his empire between slurps of minestrone.

Enter Mr North (Daniel Nils Roberts) – arriving on a stagecoach from Sheffield with sister Lucinda (Amy Cooke-Hodgson), looking to snap up some cock-a-leekie and maybe a wife. Will he be smitten by daughter Melanie (Charlotte Gittins)? Or is he still haunted by past sweetheart Eleanor?

If the plot became unnecessarily tangled at times, that is hardly surprising given the different contributors chipping in. The first half ended neatly on a major cliffhanger though, with the tyrant killed in a tragic horseshoe-related accident.

Far be it for me to suggest that the second half is mapped out during the interval, but things did feel tighter after the break. The comic momentum built swiftly as Austen-based jokes jostled with quips about budget accommodation in the Watford area.

The mysterious Eleanor returned, there was a disputed inheritance and a showdown that left numerous loose threads hanging yet still managed to be narratively satisfying. Everyone contributes to the success but bonus plaudits to Joseph Morpurgo, who plays two men and also Eleanor without the time – or budget – for a proper costume change.

It is not the slickest of dramas and maybe that is part of the fun. When the actors occasionally corpse it underlines what a good time they are having.

And their good time is infectious. Austen academics might cast aspersions over the production’s authenticity – for starters there was a distinct paucity of bonnets - but what this lacks in literary accuracy it more than makes up for in sheer unbridled silliness.

Fortune Theatre, Mondays until December 13, also Sundays December 5, 12, 19, austentatiousimpro.com

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