Shrewsbury School

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a play must be in want of a glitter cannon

Friday 4 December 2020

This week the ladies of The Grove brought a joyously irreverent Pride and Prejudice to the Barnes Theatre that saw over half the house treading the boards.

The spirited cast lead us on a side-splittingly-funny feminist romp through the Regency, condensing Jane Austen’s classic novel into 70 minutes of crisp dialogue and wry asides.

Bonnets were banished in this gutsy update, traded for glitter canons and mirror balls in a production anchored by an assured and comically brilliant performance from Georgina C as a thoroughly modern Elizabeth Bennett.

As the action opens against a backdrop of pastel ballgowns and a neo-classical set in refined cornflower blue, the audience is greeted by a bevy of servants. Cleverly transformed into a wry chorus, throughout the evening the mob-capped maids nudge the plot along and help put matters in perspective. Played with energy and commitment by Sapna C, Eve L, Eva H, Eva and Clara G, and Melissa R, as the maids point out they really are vital; after all, “you can’t have a whirlwind romance without clean knickers.”

The irrepressible Mrs Bennet enters, played with superb comic timing by Daisy S, tearing her hair out at the prospect of marrying off five daughters with no fortune. Her husband Mr Bennet is precious little help (in fact he’s a teddy bear) but hope resides with the eldest, the beautiful and kind Jane (Tabitha W), who might be their meal ticket out of the gutter.

And Mrs Bennet has just the match lined up: the new tenant of Netherfield Park, the wealthy bachelor Mr Bingley. Better yet, Bingley has brought his best friend Mr Darcy with him from London, an even more eligible marriage prospect who brings home twice Bingley’s annual income. Darcy’s £10,000 a year might sound meagre to modern ears- but as the perky servant-chorus helpfully explain, in today’s money that’s around £5million; no wonder Mrs Bennet is all aflutter at the thought of sending one of her daughters down the aisle with him.

At first all goes to plan, as Bingley is instantly bowled over by Jane’s charms. Head of House Charlotte R channels Hugh Laurie in a delightful performance that paints Bingley as a thoroughly good chap. The object of his affection is equally smitten, and Tabitha W winsomely captures Jane’s tender-heart and sincerity. The only fly in the ointment is Bingley’s snide sister, Caroline, played with Grecian poise and icy sang-froid by Rose F. Horrified to find herself surrounded by country bumpkins, she clings to Darcy, the man she is hell-bent on snaring for herself. And we can see why.

Striding across the stage with flashing eyes and thigh high boots, Imogen M is every bit the brooding heartthrob. Her nuanced performance is a masterclass in the raised eyebrow and she fully conveys first Darcy’s snobbish disdain, then his bewilderment at falling head-over-heels in love with Elizabeth.

The plot rollicks along with sight-gags aplenty as we watch Georgina’s witty and astute Elizabeth do battle with a host of characters determined to manoeuvre her into matrimony. A scene-stealing Hattie A had the audience in stitches as the strutting egotist Mr Collins, who is due to inherit Mr Bennet’s estate. Desperate to persuade him to marry one of her daughters “You can have any of them – or all of them – whatever!” Mrs Bennet is deaf to Elizabeth’s refusal to wed the oafish Collins, until an unlikely figure rides to the rescue – Mr Darcy.

Under the spell of a slow dance and disco lights, we see Darcy’s heart melt. It’s an impressively nuanced moment in two tour de force performances from Imogen and Georgina.

There’s still both pride and prejudice to overcome, however, and in swaggers Morgan S as the dashing Wickham. Elizabeth’s head is turned by his charisma, and along with the whole town she falls hook-line-and-sinker for Wickham’s tall-tale that the ‘villainous’ Darcy deprived him of his inheritance. Meanwhile, Jane’s romance comes to a dramatic halt as Caroline whisks Bingley back off to London, leaving a forlorn Jane waiting at home, every day, by the door, in case someone (anyone) should write.

Saved from Mr Collins’ clutches only to see her best friend Charlotte Lucas marry him, Elizabeth visits Rosings Park, home of his patroness Lady Catherine de Burgh. In an evening of grand entrances, Hetta H took us to new heights as Lady Catherine, swooping across the stage in voluminous panniers that matched her Wagnerian tone. Every bit the Grande Dame, Hetta captured the character’s imperiousness to a ‘t’, oblivious to the effect she has on Elizabeth when she reveals that it was Darcy who tore Bingley from Jane by convincing him that the Bennets are gold-diggers.

The evening had more in store with in-jokes aplenty for Austen aficionados with a refreshingly original take on Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth and a sequence where the servants cheekily try to coax Darcy to take a dip in the lake. At last, love reigns triumphant when Darcy redeems himself by rescuing the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, from an elopement with Whickham.

With both Jane and Elizabeth happily hitched to their true love, the final showstopping moment of the night comes from Victoria K as the studious Mary. Banished to the side-lines for her poor form at the piano forte, Mary returns to close out the show, resplendent in sequins and transformed from hapless helpmeet to husky jazz singer.

It makes a fittingly uplifting end to a production rich in a dazzling variety of comic performances and empowering messages.

Heather May

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