“Young hearts, to yourself be true.” It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen never sang along with Candi Staton. But among the many things that the frankly sensational “Pride and Prejudice (sort of*)” proves is that she not only would have, but should have. Adding karaoke to the 19th century’s blueprint rom-com may sound like a translation too far but the shocking truth of Isobel McArthur’s smart, riotously funny five-woman adaptation, now playing on the West End, is how faithful it is to Austen while being gloriously entertaining.
As sharp-eyed as it is seemingly silly, McArthur’s play-with-songs mirrors Austen by maintaining a shrewd 21st century perspective on the well-told tale of Elizabeth, Jane, Lydia and the other two who, face it, no one properly remembers. Both authors know this most enduring and endearing of love stories is really all about sex, money and snobbery. And, crucially, class.
With those politics strongly in mind, the story is crisply re-told by the servants. It’s high time, they argue, they had their season in the sun since in the novel they’re stuck in the background despite being the women who make everything possible for the main characters. Dressed in white shifts, black boots and many an arched eyebrow, they set up the story and then spend the rest of the evening racing on and off stage and in and out of Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s nifty costumes playing everyone except the notoriously tight-lipped Mr. Bennet who, in a pitch-perfect performance, is played by a wing-backed armchair and a newspaper.
From the first karaoke burst of Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write The Book”, the production’s inviting, knowing tone is made deliciously clear by directors McArthur and Simon Harvey. Their approach is perfectly summed up by Elizabeth (ideally sparky Meghan Tyler), having been snubbed at the local ball, standing on a pile of books and delivering Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” while looking daggers at Darcy.
The 20th century biographer Lord David Cecil once tartly declared Jane Austen’s view of marriage to be that it was wrong to marry for money but silly to marry without it. Fraught Mrs. Bennet, permanently at sixes and sevens over the marital prospects of her five daughters, goes a great deal further than that since her entire family’s prospects depend upon it. More than slightly inclined to boxes of chocolates and the odd drink or five, she’s played as a cross between dizzy and determined by McArthur herself, who also plays a fiercely gruff, stern Darcy.
Christina Gordon cunningly makes Jane an ideal blend of artless and hopeful and then, via Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red,” turns Lady Catherine into a gorgon who uses millinery as a weapon of mass destruction. There’s an equally funny double of handsome, wealthy, gloriously dim and besotted Bingley and his haughty, posher-than-thou sister Caroline. As played with joyously funny ease by Hannah Jarrett-Scott, the latter’s designs upon Darcy make Joan Collins in “Dynasty” look restrained.
Jarrett-Scott then goes one further, beautifully suggesting lovelorn subtext in poor plain Charlotte Lucas who, in McArthur’s script, secretly pines for love not from Mr. Collins (wonderfully appalling Tori Burgess) but from a comically unaware Lizzy.
The shocking truth of that suggested relationship, and the winning hallmark of the entire production, is that despite the galvanizing mix of belly-laughs and real wit, the emotional truth of the original novel is made flesh. The depth of the expressions of anger and heartfelt love that power the story repeatedly shocks the audience into silence.
That mix of gravitas and running gags — climaxing with Burgess’s marvelously put-upon Mary finally stealing her moment of glory — put the seal on the show’s runaway success. Unlike “Six,” it’s not (quite) a musical, but this dynamite cast of five could take this rampantly delicious show into similar theatrical orbit.