Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the source material for this work, neither in book nor cinematic form. Thus, I came to this work fresh, with no previous conception of the story or resolution. Hence, this review is of the play itself, and not the source material.
The production was put on by Regent’s Park Theatre, in an adaptation by Simon Reade of the famous novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
The venue for the performance was the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Personally, I had never been to the Corn Exchange before, and it is a fascinating venue. I was seated in the balcony, at what seemed a great height above the stage, but also a fair distance from it. The nature of the Corn Exchange is very elongated with a high roof between what appear to be the exteriors of old warehouses. Despite my distance from the stage, the actor’s voices were able to project well into the theatre, and it did not become noticeable after a short time. There was, however, a glass balustrade at the front of the balcony, the top of which formed a very thin line, which was noticeable but not obstructive.
The stage was a rotating set. The rear half of the rotating set was a semi-circular ornate gantry, with green and gold decorations such that it could form the balcony or mezzanine of a manor house. Beneath, were arches which enclosed the rotating set to the feeling of a room. Yet, the walls were not filled, so one could see the action behind when the gantry was at the front of the stage. At one end of the gantry was a staircase; the other a ladder, so actors could utilise the full space available.
On the whole, I am a fan of rotating or tiered sets, especially when used well. Here, the scene transitions were swift, which kept the pace of the performance going. The rotating set was used for short intermediary scenes which linked everything together. At no point was I disrupted from the action. The tiered sets give a different dynamic to the performance, which I found quite favourable.
There are many parts in this play, and at first it was a little difficult to keep track of, but it soon became clear. Character names are mentioned frequently enough to remember, and at no point did it feel forced. That said, the exact nature of the relationships between each of the characters was harder to discern.
The performance by Tafline Steen as Elizabeth Bennett was eloquent and engaging. I especially valued the independence of the character, to be strong and stand up for one’s position and feelings. Too often in classic plays, musicals and operas, one gets caught in the trope of boy meets girl at a party, girl falls hopelessly and haplessly in love with the ever-so-suspicious boy even against her interests, and the remainder of the performance is about their tribulations to either triumph against adversity or die in tragedy. It was very refreshing to see a female character refusing advances from both heroic and villainous characters without fear or dread. The actress was able to express her character’s emotion through body language, in a fine, subtle, manner.
I was also impressed by Benjamin Dilloway’s performance as Mr Darcy. Especially in the first half, the characterisation as socially-awkward and arrogant shone through, in a very similar manner to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. This was especially evidence during the ball scene and at the twisting end to the first act. During the second half, this mellowed a bit, in a nice bit of internal self-improvement. One oddity about the character, however, was his uncanny ability to show up at random points during Elizabeth’s year, seemingly with little explanation other than “I was passing through”. To me, it felt a little forced, and I was searching for an explanation, and was expecting something more sinister (for example, he was stalking her), but it never came up and it seemed an untidy consequence of shortening a book into a play. I also felt a little perplexed as to his overall motive. As I am unfamiliar with the full story, I cannot say for sure.
By far, the show was stolen by Felicity Montagu as Mrs Bennet. Through every scene she was in, the mannerisms of a quirky and emotive, yet deeply caring, mother and wife. Everything from the body language through to the intonations in voice delighted the audience. The character provided some comic relief, but without overacting nor being unrealistic. Much the same for Steven Meo as Mr Collins, who managed to navigate his position in the social pecking order with a great deal of panache.
As indicated before, I really enjoyed moving away from the traditional tropes of theatre love stories, especially and including the love-of-my-life-at-first-meeting-without-getting-to-know-your-persona cliche. I liked how the object of the story was about the process of finding oneself in a romance. I felt that there was a large variety in the characters that each could develop a bit of depth, and that audience members could find characters that they could associate with. There were numerous subplots and side-arcs, which are likely much more deeply solidified in the longer format. Having such a number of side stories was rather refreshing for theatre, which can tend to just focus on one or two for time convenience. Some subplots were being referred to in offhand remarks, such that they could be followed if one was paying attention.
On the downsides, some of the characters motivations seemed a little vague. From what one could gather, some were motivated by inheritance and others by title, but following, comprehending and empathising with such was difficult at best, and obstructive at worst. Secondly, towards the end, there were a number of sources of tension, side-stories or plot devices that were developed with time and depth, but were wiped away towards the end in the hope of reaching a timely conclusion. There may have been explanation, but it was either rushed over or the appeasement seemed a little out of character.
In summary, it was an engaging performance with a solid set and exceptional performances by much of the cast. One extra small detail which doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the review, is how linguistically satisfying the script is. The mastery of the words and phrases used carried a certain beauty, and helped with the immersion in the setting and the story. The plot was entertaining the way through, though I could have easily had another half-hour or so for the ending to be concluded and resolved completely.