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Truth universally acknowledged and all that, a Jane Austen show in the West End is going to make a lot of people very happy. This sweary, anarchic reboot of Pride and Prejudice by Scottish writer Isobel McArthur, in which an all-female cast of five play all of the characters, pretty much nails it. It’s a joy whether you’re a paid-up Janeite or not.
“Being a f***ing smartarse is… unladylike,” Mrs Bennet tells her daughter Elizabeth, and that basically sets the tone. Arriving in London after a hit run at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018, McArthur (who also stars and co-directs) offers us a version of this classic that is brilliantly blunt and wears its feminism on its sleeve. And… it’s got KARAOKE, employed to excellent effect as a modern twist on Austen’s social commentary: Darcy refuses to join in, while Mrs Bennet wants to stop Mary singing at all costs. Now we finally know who Carly Simon really wrote You’re So Vain about.
With its own cheeky charm, it throws everything at the wall. Not everything sticks: more could be made of the neat framing device that appoints the novel’s unseen servants as our storytellers, and I wasn’t convinced by a subplot that Charlotte Lucas is secretly in love with Elizabeth. And a bit of judicial trimming is needed – occasionally a reverence for Austen’s words stops the show from zipping along.
But this must be the hardest working cast in the West End, with each of the five constantly jumping into new characters, spinning out of costumes and picking up musical instruments. Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s Sloaney pony versions of Charles Bingley and his sister Caroline are hilarious, as is McArthur as ‘mard arse’ Darcy and an inhaler-puffing Mrs Bennet. This show ribs the characters mercilessly – Mr Collins appears by walking out of a toilet and spraying everyone with his wet hands, which is totally something he would do – but a deep affection for the source material is never in doubt.
See it with your friends, take your mum to a matinee, or make it a family trip. Teachers will go down in history for taking their students to see this – the line “I just LOVE balls,” feels exclusively written to make GCSE students giggle. It’s the kind of warm, big-hearted show the West End needs after our horrible year or so – one that’s best enjoyed with others, which you’ll probably pass on as a foolproof recommendation of fun to someone else.
Criterion Theatre, currently booking until February 13; prideandprejudicesortof.com