It was a delight to catch the Regent’s Park Theatre touring production of Pride and Prejudice at Theatre Royal Bath, a city which has long since claimed Jane Austen as their own due to the author having lived here from 1801-1806, and now welcomes thousands of tourists each year keen to celebrate her life and works. When the Theatre Royal opened in 1805, it became a key venue in the social whirl of Austen and her contemporaries and therefore it almost certainly contributed to the anticipation and buzz inside the house prior to curtain up on opening night.
Directed by Deborah Bruce and adapted by Simon Reade, who successfully handled E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, he has created a largely faithful play, in which the tale of the chaotic Bennet family hurtles on at an energetic pace, (aided by a superb revolving set designed by Max Jones), whilst most of Austen’s wittiest dialogue is used to great comic effect by a cast who clearly enjoy the language of the period. And yes, for Austen-lovers, this production is filled with nicely choreographed dance sequences (Siân Williams) and period costumes galore (Tom Piper), not to mention a period-sounding music score by Lillian Henley.
Matthew Kelly is a loveable Mr Bennet, our heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s long-suffering father, while Felicity Montagu is brilliantly cast as his indecorous, over-dramatic wife, eager to marry off her five daughters, of varying intellect and beauty – though Reade is careful to save Mrs Bennet’s fainting fits for the second half, which are worth the wait.
Lydia, (Mari Izzard), the youngest, is pretty but feckless, with her head easily turned by a man in uniform, Kitty (Anna Crichlow) is naive and in need of guidance, while Mary (Leigh Quinn) is so plain that it’s a positive advantage to find her always with her nose in a book. The eldest sisters, Jane (Hollie Edwin) and Elizabeth (Tafline Steen), easily outshine the other three, possessing both intelligence and good looks, and therefore soon pique the interest of wealthy county newcomers Mr Bingley (Jordan Mifsúd) and his dashing, yet haughty friend Mr Darcy (Benjamin Dilloway) at a ball; owner of Pemberley with an income of ten thousand a year and single! Surely he must be in want of a wife?
Although the sub-plot between Darcy and his arch nemesis Mr Wickham (Daniel Abbott) is only briefly touched upon, with Elizabeth listening to his tale of woe in one encounter, Reade has done a commendable job of rattling through a tale that the BBC strung out for six episodes, whilst this cast is strong enough to make you forget (at least for the duration of the performance) the iconic performances that made many of us dust off our Austen in 1995.
Steven Meo is a suitably self-serving Mr Collins who, after being refused by Elizabeth, settles for her frumpier friend Charlotte Lucas (Francesca Bailey), a woman not too proud to admit to having married him for security. Dilloway meanwhile makes a convincingly aloof Darcy, while Steen gives Elizabeth a modern edge that works well in this medium, especially during the scene in which Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Doña Croll) attempts to convince her that she is too lowly to marry her nephew, whom she has long intended for her dull, sickly daughter, Annabel (also Leigh Quinn).
Regardless of how well you know the story, I expect you would guess that Elizabeth, despite her protestations, will end up falling for Darcy, and that he will finally realise that Jane and Bingley are well suited, despite his initial reluctance to see his friend acquire Mrs Bennet for a mother-in-law, a woman who seems rather taken aback when her household suddenly depletes in the second half. Happy endings are the order of the day, so sit back, relax and enjoy the humour and charm of this beautiful production worthy of its own happy ending and a West End run.
Regent’s Park Theatre production of Pride and Prejudice is at Theatre Royal Bath until 21st January 2017 as part of a wider tour of the UK until 25th February 2017. For a full list of venues and dates, and to book tickets, please visit the website. Images by Johan Persson.