Regent’s Park Theatre marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death with a tour of its 2013 production of Pride and Prejudice.
Necessity dictates that some parts of Austen’s work have to be cut down or omitted altogether, and Simon Reade’s adaptation makes some interesting choices. The extended opening scenes at Longbourn and the Meryton assembly rooms sensibly combine several moments from the book’s early chapters, initiating a quick pace from the start. The closing scene, a montage of letter extracts written by the central characters, is a fitting and efficient way to tie all the plot strands together.
But there are other cuts that make little sense even within the confines of the play: Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship with Wickham is barely touched on—their first meeting, at the Netherfield ball, is in fact their only scene together. Lydia and Wickham elope from Meryton to Brighton, meaning that she manages to disappear right under her parents’ noses. In the final scene between Lizzie and Mr Bennet, her happy news is forestalled by a sudden and completely irrelevant discussion of his unhappy choice of wife. It may include quotes from the book’s first chapter, but it jars with the happy ending.
The second act sees several key moments condensed into one long, ridiculous scene at the Bennet house—the Wickhams, the Collinses, Mr Bingley and Lady Catherine pop up one by one with no sense of time passing in between, and then stay to watch the narrative unfold. It has echoes of a bedroom farce, but then comedy is undoubtedly the primary focus of this production.
Mrs Bennet takes centre stage, uttering the book’s iconic opening line in addition to other characters’ wittiest quotes. More serious and potentially romantic moments, such as Mr Darcy’s proposals, are deliberately played for laughs.In addition to Felicity Montagu’s sublimely ridiculous, over-the-top Mrs Bennet, Steven Meo sticks out with his excitably flamboyant Mr Collins. Leigh Quinn gets a laugh for every one of Mary Bennet’s conversation-stopping lines, and she even does her curtain call with her nose in a book. Tafline Steen is a lively and appealingly modern Elizabeth, but her delivery is often a touch too blunt or flippant.
Max Jones’s set design is unexpected—rather than being bogged down in period detail, the backdrop is a simple wrought iron frame, reminiscent of the gates to a country estate. Stairs and a balcony allow action to take place on different levels, meaning that full rein can be given to the madness of the Bennet household. This set is placed on a revolving stage, which turns slowly during ball or dinner scenes, allowing the audience to glimpse different interactions from all angles. Using actors in costume as servants to perform scene changes is not a new idea, but it is effective glimpsing them scurrying back and forth behind the scenes while other action takes place in the foreground.
A good level of period detail is evoked through the use of atmospheric candlelight, piano music played by characters both within scenes and as soundtrack, and dancing. The awkwardness of Darcy and Lizzie’s dance at the Netherfield ball is cleverly highlighted by substantial pauses in the music.
Overall, this production is a funny and light-hearted watch, but it lacks the subtle irony and insightful character development that makes Jane Austen’s novel one of the greatest works of literature.
(This review was originally written for the British Theatre Guide).