First published in The Times, Wednesday July 4 2018
The accoutrements of Sunday evening TV costume drama are present and correct in Blood of the Young’s refreshed take on Jane Austen. A chandelier hangs above an upright piano. A harp waits in a corner of the stage next to a row of high-backed chairs with floral upholstery. As the house lights go down we await the rattle and chink of the Bennet family’s best china plate being wheeled into the parlour for the benefit of gentleman visitors.
Instead of the expected restraint and constraint, however, the five Bennett sisters take to the stage in a whirl of disco lights, karaoke tunes and some decidedly un-Regency profanity. The Netherfield ball descends into a drunken brawl. Elizabeth (Meghan Tyler) rejects the advances of the odious Mr Collins (Tori Burgess) with a resounding “f*** off!” Having finally won Lizzie’s love, Darcy (Isobel McArthur), apologises for “behaving like a twat.”
Pic: John Johnston
The irreverent approach to august material in McArthur’s script is at times reminiscent of Ben Elton’s Blackadder or the Shakespeare-inspired Upstart Crow. It is not hard to imagine the clash of elements on display here in a sitcom slot on television. There is plenty in Paul Brotherston’s lively production to entertain anyone with even a passing knowledge of Austen’s milieu, even if, stretched out to two-and-a-half hours, the conceit wears thin.
Pic: John Johnston
Unsurprisingly, it is in the scenes of high comedy that the intelligence of McArthur’s adaptation and her affection for the original are at their most affecting. By stripping away the finesse behind which Austen’s characters conceal their passions, the playwright emphasises the desperate nature of the sisters’ situation and their dependence on mercenary marriage prospects. On the flipside, moments of profound pathos, including the fallout from Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, expose the limits of blunt, everyday dialogue.
The five-strong, all-female ensemble is skilled at switching among Austen’s great gallery of characters. We warm to Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s Mr Bingley, recoil from Christina Gordon’s Lady Catherine and Tori Burgess’s Mr Collins and swoon to McArthur’s Darcy – and all without a wet shirt in sight.